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As recognition nears, Shinnecocks eye casino

Shinnecock Indian Powwow at the Shinnecock Indian Nation

Shinnecock Indian Powwow at the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Sept. 02, 2007. Photo Credit: Newsday File / Ana P. Gutierrez

With federal recognition now within its grasp, the Shinnecock Indian Nation likely will be able to build a basic casino featuring video lottery terminals as early as next summer.

But the tribe's vision is much grander: It hopes to develop a full-scale casino off the reservation property.

The options range from the EPCAL facility in Calverton, to the Belmont or Aqueduct racetracks, to the Catskills - or even some combination of those places and others in a multi-casino scenario.

>> PHOTOS: See images from the Shinnecock Tribe's 2009 Pow Wow

But some experts warn those visions are far from a done deal. Local opposition rose up when the tribe broke ground on a casino in Hampton Bays several years ago - only to be stopped in court - and there remains strong opposition to any tribal gambling facility in Southampton. The tribe may face other serious governmental obstacles that could doom the project.

"It has been nearly impossible for the last 15 years for any tribe in the nation to have a casino off its reservation," said Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School. "They have extraordinary hurdles ahead of them before they could get a casino away from their land."

Still, the tribe and Suffolk political leaders are salivating over the idea of a revenue-producing casino. They believe the Shinnecocks could use the threat of protracted and expensive lawsuits over land claims to get both the state and federal governments to permit an off-reservation casino.

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

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

The Town of Southampton already spent $3.9 million to successfully fight one such dispute over the Westwoods site in Hampton Bays where the Shinnecocks wanted to build a casino. That case was decided in 2007.

"We have enough presence in the state that we can push to have that move forward" to get an off-reservation casino, said Suffolk County Legis. Wayne R. Horsley (D-Babylon) who chairs the committee that oversees Suffolk's gaming task force.

>>VIDEO: Click here to watch the Shinnecock nation's annual Pow Wow with drums and dancing

The Shinnecock Indian Nation's main partner in plans to develop a casino is Gateway Casino Resorts of Detroit. It has ties to Little Caesars Pizza and Indian gambling sites in Michigan.

The group has floated the idea of two or even three "world-class" casinos from Suffolk to the Catskills, sprawling facilities with 1,000-room hotels. Gateway is interested in the lucrative New York City market - meaning Aqueduct in Queens and nearby Belmont in Nassau.

Horsley said his committee is pushing the Shinnecocks to keep any potential casino in Suffolk - though not on the North or South forks, where already bad traffic would become a nightmare.

"Suffolk County is the place they should consider for a gaming institution," Horsley said.

If Tuesday's decision is finalized - presumably by the spring - the Shinnecocks would be automatically permitted to open what is known as a "Class II" gambling facility on their reservation. It would be limited to video lottery terminals.

But if the tribe wants a larger casino off its reservation with a wider selection of casino gambling, it would need the permission of not only local and state authorities, but Congress as a whole and the Department of the Interior, Liebman said.

"That support has been virtually impossible for any tribe in the nation to achieve," he said.

The issue is also complicated by a Supreme Court ruling this year. It found the Department of the Interior couldn't take land into trust - convert a parcel into Indian land - for tribes recognized after about 1935. That would need special authorization by Congress.

>> READ MORE: Complete coverage of the Shinnecock's tribe's quest for recognition

>> PHOTOS: See images from the Shinnecock Tribe's 2009 Pow Wow

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