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Shinnecock sovereignty challenged at site of electronic billboard

The state Department of Transportation has alleged the

The state Department of Transportation has alleged the Shinnecocks' billboard on Sunrise Highway poses safety concerns for the more than 15,000 people who travel across the stretch every day. Photo Credit: John Roca

New York State is challenging the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s sovereignty on the site of a 61-foot-tall electronic billboard recently installed by the tribe south of Sunrise Highway, according to recent court filings in the state’s ongoing lawsuit over the project.

An amended complaint filed electronically June 21 by a representative of state Attorney General Letitia James’ office notes that the tribe’s Westwoods site is made of three Hampton Bays properties west of the Shinnecock canal and that although it is owned by the tribe, it is not a part of the Southampton reservation.

“The Westwoods is separate and apart from the Shinnecock Indian Reservation,” the complaint states. “The Westwoods is not aboriginal or sovereign lands.”

Tribal council of trustees vice chairman Lance Gumbs declined to comment Tuesday on that argument. The tribe has repeatedly asserted it is immune to lawsuits and that it does not need the state’s permission to move forward with the project.

The tribe contends the case should be dropped. Arguments are scheduled to be heard Thursday in state Supreme Court in Riverhead.

A June 10 filing by the tribe’s lawyers in support of dismissing the case notes that “though Plaintiff has never taxed the lands in question and has treated them as Shinnecock Indian territory from time immemorial, it now seeks to colonize these woods in furtherance of the aesthetic desires of the Southampton elite.”

The state Department of Transportation has alleged 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 — one completed on the south side of Sunrise Highway and another under construction on the north — pose safety concerns for the more than 15,000 people who travel across the stretch every day.

“The state continues to pursue whatever actions are necessary to fulfill its obligation to uphold state and federal law,” a DOT spokesman said Wednesday.

The state filed a lawsuit against the individual tribal council members and their contractor, Larry Clark, on May 24. State Supreme Court Justice Cheryl Joseph issued a restraining order barring the tribe from operating the signs while the case is pending, an order the Shinnecocks have ignored. State lawyers have asked that the defendants be found in contempt of court and fined for disobeying the judge’s mandate.

“Members of an Indian tribe acting outside of their reservation can evade state law no more than anyone else and the state may sue to enjoin them from continuing to flout the law,” Assistant Attorney General Christopher Gatto wrote in the amended complaint.

Representatives from James' office did not respond to a request for comment.

The tribe says the billboards, which it calls monuments, are a needed economic development project.

In an affidavit filed June 6, Clark said negative attention generated by the state’s case and pushback from Southampton Town officials have made the sites less desirable to advertisers. He said his firm has already invested $2 million in the project, which he fears it will not be able to recoup because interested advertisers have dropped from 15 to two.

“Those who would have partnered with our company will look elsewhere to find a partner,” the affidavit states.

Clark declined to comment.

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