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Ruling may aid Shinnecock casino bid

The Belmont Racetrack may be the site of

The Belmont Racetrack may be the site of the Shinnecock's casino. (Oct. 4, 2007) Credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach

In a boost to the Shinnecock Indian Nation's quest for a casino at Belmont Park, a top U.S. regulator this week rescinded a 3-year-old edict that limited federally sanctioned off-reservation land acquisitions to those within commuting distance to a tribe's homeland.

After a yearlong review with tribes, the U.S. Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Larry Echo Hawk, on Tuesday withdrew the ruling, which was handed down during the Bush administration.

"The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation," Echo Hawk said. "We will proceed to process off-reservation gaming applications in a transparent manner, consistent with existing law."

The memorandum generally excluded federal land-into-trust status for properties that were 70 to 90 miles or more away from a tribal reservation, holding that such distances weren't reasonably commutable, and therefore couldn't economically benefit a tribe.

Belmont Park, where the Shinnecocks hope to secure a land for a casino, is 77 miles from the tribe's Southampton reservation. The prospect of a casino there has the strong backing of powerful State Senate Republicans. The tribe is also negotiating for properties in Suffolk, including one just off the Long Island Expressway in Yaphank.

"We view this as a strong indication that we can and will win federal approval for our projects, so long as we have strong local and state support," said Randy King, trustee chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

He called the rescinding of the memo "another positive step forward for Indian gaming" and said it "can help bring thousands of jobs to Long Island and keep millions in revenue here in New York for teachers, police and to cut taxes."

But there remain other big hurdles to opening a casino, most notably a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, that excludes tribes that were federally recognized after 1934 from land-into-trust agreements for casinos and other purposes. The tribe received recognition last year. The tribe could argue it was recognized prior to 1934, people familiar with its strategy say, but an act of Congress paving the way for its casino proposals is the more likely resolution.

Lance Gumbs, a former Shinnecock trustee who lobbied hard for easing the commuting restriction, called the move "great for us in one breath, but we still have the problem of Carcieri and our inability to take land into trust."

"The real fix that's needed" is a reversal of the Supreme Court ruling, said Gumbs, who is northeast vice president for the National Congress of American Indians. He attended the conference where Echo Hawk announced his decision Tuesday.

Bills in Congress promising a fix to Carcieri have been stalled and are generally opposed by states with casino interests that see new casinos as a threat.

Reversing Carcieri "would really help us," Gumbs said.

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