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Shinnecocks vow to assert immunity as DOT issues restraining order to halt billboards 

The sign on the eastbound Sunrise Highway in

The sign on the eastbound Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays, seen Friday, is already illuminated with advertising meant to generate revenue for the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Credit: John Roca

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation said in a news release issued Tuesday that the tribe will fight a restraining order from the state Department of Transportation to block the tribe from completing construction on a pair of billboards along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.

Tribal members said that, as a sovereign nation, the tribe is immune from court proceedings brought by the state.

"The State has a long history of bulldozing Indian lands and Indian people to get what it wants. We will fight against this most recent effort to attack our tribal sovereignty," the release stated.

A DOT spokesman said the agency, which issued several stop-work orders and earlier this month a cease-and-desist letter to the tribe, will continue its legal battle.

“The state will continue to pursue whatever actions are necessary to fulfill its obligation to uphold state and federal law,” a DOT spokesman said in a statement.

State Attorney General Letitia James filed a restraining order request on Friday, which named tribal council members and the tribe’s contractor, Idon Media of La Quinta, California, seeking to stop construction. The complaint states that the Shinnecocks did not obtain the proper approvals to perform the work within a state right of way and that the 61-foot-tall structures pose safety concerns for the more than 15,000 people who travel across the stretch every day.

“The construction of such massive billboards within the State Highway Right-of-Way creates a substantial threat of harm to all people utilizing the portion of Sunrise Highway,” the complaint states.

The complaint also notes that if the billboards were to fall, they “could crush vehicles traversing on Sunrise Highway, as well as completely block the flow of traffic on the highway.”

Tribal members maintain that they do not need approval from the state, but had until recently been regularly meeting with DOT officials about the project.

A state judge issued a temporary restraining order following a hearing Friday in state Supreme Court in Central Islip, and the matter is set to be heard again on June 7.

The tribe activated one of the billboards on Thursday, and it remained lit and active as of Tuesday afternoon. A second billboard along the westbound lane has yet to be completed.

Lance Gumbs, tribal council of trustees vice chairman for the Shinnecock Indian Nation, said Friday that the billboards were a “wonderful, historic moment” for the tribe, which is hoping the billboards will be an economic generator for them via advertising revenue.

Gumbs said Tuesday that the controversy over the billboards, which have also been criticized by Southampton Town officials and civic leaders, has had little impact on advertising interest.

“We’ve had over 71 local businesses who have reached out wanting to advertise in spite of all this,” Gumbs said. “We’ve had tremendous support. People wanted to donate to a legal defense fund. It’s been an overwhelming measure of support.”

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