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Shinnecock off-reservation casino may take years

A sign on Newtown Road in Hampton Bays

A sign on Newtown Road in Hampton Bays marks Shinnecock Indian Reservation property. (May 01, 2003) Credit: Doug Kuntz

Now that their tribe has won preliminary federal recognition, leaders of the Shinnecock Indian Nation this week spoke of erecting a full-fledged casino on land away from their Southampton reservation in as little as 18 months.

>>VIDEO: Click here to see residents react to the Shinnecock Nation

>>VIDEO: Click here to watch the Shinnecock leaders and members celebrate the good news

But experts on Indian gambling ventures say the tribe's visions - including casinos at Calverton, Belmont racetrack and even in the Catskills - may be deeply unrealistic.

They say it is rare for the federal government to grant permission for an off-reservation casino, and that the Shinnecocks will face a plethora of obstacles - including a requirement that tribal gambling operations be built within 75 miles of reservation land. The Shinnecock reservation is just over 75 miles from Belmont. The Catskills are more than double that.

Moreover, the process could easily drag on for years, with no guarantee of success at the end.


Huge hurdles for tribe

"There are a number of huge hurdles for a tribe like the Shinnecocks," said Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota Law School. "It's very complicated. There is not a lot of precedent and there are huge legal and political hurdles that will have to be cleared."

Shinnecock leaders declined to comment on Friday. But their main partner in plans to develop a casino, Gateway Casino Resorts of Detroit, acknowledged the tribe faced an uphill battle.

"It's certainly difficult. It's something that is used rarely," said Gateway spokesman Tom Shields, referring to an exception to a general ban on Indian casinos outside their reservations. "The tribe has to make the decision whether or not that is the direction they want to go in."

Still, he added, "It's certainly doable if all the parties involved agree that is the best solution for the Shinnecocks."

It appears just three other tribes in the United States have won approval for the statutory exception the Shinnecocks might need to pursue to go off reservation. Each was granted in the early 1990s, Rand said.

Overall, perhaps two dozen casinos have opened off reservation land in the United States since 1988 when Indian gambling was legalized, but most are on land where tribes have historical ties, Rand said. The Shinnecocks have no known historical ties to areas such as Belmont or the Catskills.

The Shinnecocks could readily build a "Class Two" casino on their reservation that would be limited to video lottery terminals. Contrary to some perceptions, it could be highly profitable. It also would quickly provide millions to the tribe - instead of bogging it down in what could be years of bureaucracy, said William R. Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Reno, Nevada.

Doing so would also likely trigger resistance in Southampton. Officials and residents there fear a traffic nightmare.

If the Shinnecocks build off their reservation, they would make it a Class Three casino, with slot machines, roulette wheels and table games such as poker and blackjack. But that's where they would face multiple problems, gambling-industry experts said.

The 1988 federal law permitting Indian casinos generally prohibits them off reservations. The federal government does not want tribes "reservation shopping," saying they'd like a casino near, say Los Angeles, Manhattan, or Miami, even though the tribe's reservation is hundreds of miles away, Eadington said. One tribe even applied for a site 1,400 miles away.

Exceptions are rare. The Shinnecocks believe they can get one by leveraging the specter of protracted and expensive lawsuits over land claims and get both the state and federal governments to permit an off-reservation casino.


Land claims as leverage?

Those land claims involve 3,600 acres in the Southampton area, including the famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.

Nelson Rose, a law professor at Whittier College and a prominent authority on gambling law, said making such a scenario succeed is not impossible. One factor: How much political strength could the tribe swing behind its plan?

Still, other hurdles loom. Other tribes have opened casinos off-reservation by using sites they access through "land trusts" arranged with the U.S. Department of the Interior. But a Supreme Court decision last February bars tribes recognized after 1934 from entering into such trusts.

A proposal to rectify that was introduced in Congress in September. Many observers believed the Obama administration would help push it through, but that has not happened.

They also thought the administration would relax a ruling from the George W. Bush era that off-reservation casinos be within "commuting distance" of the reservation - that's 75 miles - so tribe members could work there. But that hasn't happened, either.

>>VIDEO: Click here to see residents react to the Shinnecock Nation

>>VIDEO: Click here to watch the Shinnecock leaders and members celebrate the good news

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