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State threatens to fine, remove Shinnecock billboards

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Sunday refused a

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Sunday refused a state order to cease construction of a second digital billboard on Sunrise Highway. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

The Shinnecock Indian Nation on Sunday publicly refused a state order to cease construction of a second digital billboard on Sunrise Highway despite a threat of fines and forceful removal of the tribal structures, arguing the state "lacks authority over nation lands."

The tribal council of trustees, in a statement, dismissed the state's threat Friday to issue daily fines of $1,000 for the new and existing billboard and to remove them within 30 days, calling them "just one example of the mistreatment of the nation has suffered at the hands of the state." They asserted new construction at the site on the north side of the highway just west of the Shinnecock canal meets or exceeds all state safety measures.

Escalation of the state's two-year crackdown on the billboards comes as the Shinnecock Nation faces an outbreak of COVID-19 cases on its Southampton reservation. One former tribal leader said cases of the virus, which were kept to just four through most of 2020, have increased to nearly 10 times that this year, and called the state's moves "harassment."

Tribal trustees, in their statement, noted the monuments represent more than an opportunity for "desperately needed revenue." They also "serve as a powerful reminder that the Shinnecock People still occupy their ancestral lands despite centuries of racial and economic oppression by the state." And they noted that New York State has paid to advertise on the signs.

Joseph Morrissey, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, didn't comment Sunday, but last week confirmed the state issued a stop-work order and added the department "will continue to pursue legal remedies to uphold safety under the law."

Work on the second digital billboard began Thursday on tribal land directly across from the first, which has been operating since 2019 despite a state lawsuit that sought to stop it. A state Supreme Court judge in a ruling last May declined to issue a temporary restraining order to stop work on the billboards, saying they posed "no unacceptable safety risk."

The department's Jan. 29 letter notes all construction in state roadway rights of way require special permits the tribal project lacks, and says the nation is to pay $1,000 in daily fines per violation. It also notes the existing sign that has been operating "unpermitted" on the eastbound side since 2019 and gives notice that the state has the right to remove the billboards on both sides of the highway 30 days after providing notice of violations.

It’s not the first time an entity has come under fire for billboards erected on roadways in the state. In 2016, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo began an "I Love NY" campaign by installing 514 signs on roadways that touted state tourist attractions and featured links to state websites, raising the ire of local residents who viewed them as unsightly and promotional. The federal government called the campaign illegal and threatened to withhold federal funding for roadways if they weren’t removed. Cuomo and his Department of Transportation relented and removed them in 2018.

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