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Judge denies state injunction request to remove Shinnecock billboard

The Shinnecock Indian Nation's billboard on Route 27

The Shinnecock Indian Nation's billboard on Route 27 in Southampton on March 21. Credit: Randee Daddona

A state Supreme Court judge has denied New York state’s request for a preliminary injunction to remove the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s billboard/monument on Sunrise Highway, in a victory for the Southampton tribe’s efforts to broaden economic development.

In a ruling Monday, Judge Sanford Neil Berland found that the state’s request for an injunction “preventing the operation” billboard was “unwarranted” and that the state would suffer “no irreparable harm” if the billboards remained in place as the case proceeds.

The nation erected the first of two planned 61-foot-tall monuments on tribal land on the south side of Sunrise near the Shinnecock Canal. A second billboard is planned for the north side of the highway, and a future gas station is also planned.

Berland found the “equities do not balance in favor of” the state, provided the tribe “constructed and are operating the billboards in compliance with appropriate structure and other safety standards.” In recent months the billboards have been used by Southampton Town for public service messages related to COVID-19.

The judge denied the tribe’s motion to dismiss the case, but set June 1 for a video conference to discuss the tribe’s request to impose contempt sanctions on the state.

Berland found the electronic signs “pose none of the disruptive consequences” that the tribe’s previous attempt to open a casino, which was rejected in a federal court suit, allegedly posed. He also found the advertising dollars the signs have garnered represent “an important revenue source for the nation.”

Tribal chairman Bryan Polite called the judge's ruling "very gratifying," reinforcing the tribe's long-held land ownership and the proper construction and operation of the sign. 

"Now hopefully the state of New York will stop trying to impede our economic development and work with us to finish" the second monument on the north side of the highway and a planned gas station. 

The signs are one of several avenues of economic development the tribe has proposed in recent years to help fund tribal operations in the absence of planned casinos and other ventures since the Shinnecock Nation won federal recognition in 2010. The tribe is working to open a medical marijuana dispensary on tribal land on Montauk Highway and plans one or two gas stations, including one near the proposed billboards on Sunrise Highway.

Berland ruling also noted: “ … not only is it undisputed that the Nation owns the land in question, but there is no doubt that the nation has owned it for many decades, if not centuries, predating most, if not all, significant development in the area.” Further, he said, “it is the only remaining part of their once-extensive demesne that touches the Peconic Bay side of Long Island.”

Tribal vice chairman Lance Gumbs applauded Berland's findings on the tribe's land status. "I was happy he took the time to do his research on some really key points that we have been making for quite some time," Gumbs said, noting how tribal land was "taken away illegally, as we have argued all along." 

A spokesman for the state didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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