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Despite stop orders, Shinnecock leaders say billboard work will continue

Steel columns designed to support a pair of

Steel columns designed to support a pair of 61-foot electronic billboards being constructed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation and contested by state and local officials. Credit: Anthony J. Causi

Leaders of the Shinnecock Indian Nation said Sunday they will continue building two electronic billboards by Route 27 in Hampton Bays despite community opposition and repeated demands to stop from state and local officials.

The state Department of Transportation ordered the tribe on Friday morning to halt construction on the pair of 61-foot billboard towers, first issuing a stop-work order and, several hours later, the cease-and-desist order, according to the tribe. DOT officials would not comment on any action they may have filed. In April, Southhampton Town officials issued a stop-work order for the construction.

Tribal members said they met with DOT officials Friday and believed they were accommodating the state, so the notices to stop building “blindsided” them. In a conference call Sunday, tribal leaders said they will not honor the orders to stop building on their land and are exploring legal options.

“We’re not asking for permission,” said tribal council of trustees vice chairman Lance Gumbs. “We do not believe we need permission to work on our tribal land.”

The tribe, which calls the structures “monuments,” said it is within its rights to build the signs, and the billboards would bring advertising revenue. Civic leaders and town officials have criticized the signs as being out of character on the South Fork.

The two towers will be on tribe-owned land on Route 27's east and westbound shoulders between Exits 65 and 66, a route traversed by almost all those driving to Southampton and farther east.

“We didn’t create this traffic, but now we have a way to capitalize on the traffic with a very small footprint,” Gumbs said.

Shinnecock officials said the land is not held in trust by the federal government, as some tribal lands are, and, instead, the land is "restricted fee," a description applied to tribal lands in New York and New Mexico and subject to federal protection.  A spokeswoman for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Sunday that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has determined it is up to the state to research whether the land is “aboriginal,” which the tribe believes it is.

“The Department of Transportation, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, is reviewing the matter and in the process of taking appropriate legal action,” a state DOT spokesman said in an email Sunday.

Judith Shapiro, a tribal law expert and an attorney for the tribe, said the Shinnecocks are the only recorded owners of the land, and as a federally recognized tribe since 2010, they are entitled protections as if they had always been federally recognized.

“The local people may have gotten used to that protection not being there," Shapiro said, "but they better get over it."

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