Feds: Upstate NY tribe should get 13,086 acres for trust lands

By William Kates
Syracuse, New York (AP) 2-08

The Oneida Indian Nation would be allowed to place more than 13,000 acres of its ancestral upstate New York homelands into federal trust under a “preferred alternative” plan offered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The 13,086 acres in Madison and Oneida counties would include the tribe’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona and the nation’s 32-acre territory near Oneida, where many of its government and cultural offices are located.

The Oneidas had asked for 17,370 acres in federal trust, which exempts the property from state and local taxes and laws. Government leaders from Madison and Oneida counties wanted no more than about 1,000 acres of trust land.

In its long-awaited final environmental impact statement, the BIA said its alternative was a compromise and “reflects a focus on the immediate and shorter-term needs of the Nation to re-establish a sovereign homeland and on the New York State and local government requests to consider a more compact and contiguous trust land group.”

A final decision on the trust application by the Department of Interior is due on or after March 25. A 30-day appeals period would follow. The department can accept BIA’s preferred alternative, or choose another of the alternatives the agency considered, which ranged from placing 35,000 acres in trust to no trust lands at all. It can even select an alternative not included in the final draft.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” said Oneida County Legislator Mike Hennessy, one of several local leaders who were briefed in Washington, D.C., by interior officials.

“I am extremely disappointed about the acreage involved in this recommendation, and urge the Department of the Interior to reject it,” said state Sen. David Valesky. “This proposal will not solve the issue, and does nothing to address the local concerns about loss of local tax revenue and the impact on local businesses.”

“We are grateful for the Department of Interior’s hard work during this process,” said Mark Emery, a spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation. “Now is a good time to move beyond the negativity and toward a better community for all of us.”

The proposed trust land sits in “two relatively condensed clusters,” one centered on the casino and the other on the nation’s 32-acre reservation, the report said. The land consists of 234 parcels in an area of about 9 by 14 miles.

The parcels “are, for the most part, located within a reasonably short driving time of around 15 minutes from each other,” the report said.

The area contains about 80 percent of the nation’s housing, the majority of its government services, the casino and its four golf courses and four of the tribe’s 13 SavOn gas stations and convenience stores. It also includes 9,789 acres of farmland.

The proposal would set aside 8,833 acres in Oneida County and 4,253 acres in Madison County – in both instances, about 1 percent of the county’s total area, the report noted.

According to the BIA’s analysis, the exempted land would cost the counties about $2.19 million in annual property taxes – not including the contested assessment on the casino, which the counties say owes $12.2 million a year in taxes.

But the BIA report found that loss would be offset by the growth in the income, sales and property taxes paid by Nation employees resulting in “net benefit revenues to New York state and local governments.” In 2005, that trade-off amounted to about a $16.8 million benefit for the state and local governments, the report said.

The BIA determined placing the land in trust would pose no greater demands on local community facilities and services.

The Oneidas filed their trust application in April 2005 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the tribe in a long-running dispute with the city of Sherrill over unpaid taxes on Indian-owned property.

In that decision, the Supreme Court decided ancestral land reacquired by the nation was not sovereign and, as a result, was taxable and subject to governmental controls like zoning and use regulations. However, the justices suggested the tribe consider placing its reacquired lands in federal trust.

The counties and state steadfastly opposed the Oneidas’ application. One of their biggest concerns was creating a checkerboard of jurisdictions that would seriously burden local governments, taxpayers and landowners.

The nation claimed rejection of the application would threaten the future of the tribe’s successful casino and resort, which provides about 4,000 jobs, as well as the welfare of the approximately 1,000 nation members.

The final impact statement that was released is a revised version of the 1000-plus-page draft released in November 2006, and which had been under review by the BIA since that time. The preferred plan was not in the original draft.

The draft was the subject of a number of well-attended public hearings in the two counties where numerous opponents and proponents spoke out, sometimes heatedly.