A native American tribe’s plans for a gambling hall on Martha’s Vineyard gained a second life Tuesday after a federal appeals court reversed a lower court decision blocking the long-sought project.
The decision made public Tuesday ruled the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe exercises sufficient government powers on its lands to be considered a sovereign tribal nation that can conduct limited gambling under federal law without seeking local approvals.
In rejecting a key premise in the 2015 lower court ruling, the three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal noted that the federally recognized tribe operates a housing program that’s built about 30 residential units, runs a health clinic and administers various education and social service programs for tribe members.
It also has rangers who enforce tribal laws as well as a judge and a range of ordinances and inter-government agreements.
Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais called on the state and town governments that challenged the tribe’s casino proposal to drop their litigation and respect the court’s decision.
“As we have always asserted, the Aquinnah Wampanoag has every right to conduct gaming on our tribal lands just as any other tribe in the country,” she said. “This decision affirms our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the land that has always been ours and solidifies our place in the gaming market.”
State Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it’s reviewing the decision. Town officials will meet Thursday to consider their options.
The state and town had argued that a 1983 agreement granting the tribe nearly 500 acres on the famous resort island had specifically prohibited gambling. The tribe maintains it’s within its rights to conduct limited gambling.
The tribe proposes turning an unfinished community center into a facility housing up to 300 electronic betting machines. It hasn’t proposed offering casino table games such as blackjack or roulette.
The casino debate has roiled the otherwise quiet, sparsely populated western edge of Martha’s Vineyard in recent years.
Some of the most vocal opposition has come from the roughly 1,200-member tribe’s island-dwelling minority, which has echoed the concerns of non-tribal residents about traffic, crime and other social problems a casino could bring.
Supporters have countered that casino revenues, estimated at around $4.5 million a year, would allow the tribal government to offer more critical services where the majority of its citizens live – on mainland Massachusetts.
Massachusetts currently has one casino, the Plainridge Park slots parlor in Plainville. But two other major resort casinos are under construction by MGM and Wynn.
Another native American tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag of Cape Cod, also is seeking federal approval to build a resort in Taunton.