Massena, Brasher town supervisors ‘beyond disappointment’ with Mohawk land claim deal
From left, St. Lawrence County legislator Tony Arquiett, county legislative chairman Jonathan Putney, Governor Andrew Cuomo, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal chiefs Ron LaFrance and Beverly Cook, and Mohawk Tribal sub-chiefs Eric Thompson and Michael Connors agreed to a land claim settllement Wednesday.
By ANDY GARDNER
Although the decades-old Mohawk land claim appears to be resolved, Massena and Brasher's town supervisors are furious with St. Lawrence County and New York state leaders for leaving them out of the process.
Under the agreement, the tribe will have the opportunity to buy back 1,360 acres in Massena and 3,440 acres in Brasher.In return, St. Lawrence County will get a $4 million annual payment from the state's share of gaming compact payments and the tribe will also release the other half of gaming compact monies held in escrow since 2010.
Gray Feels Deceived
"There was no level of involvement … I was summoned to the governor's office in July … I was told there would be negotiations and that never happened," Massena Town Supervisor Joseph Gray said. "I feel I was lied to by the governor and his staff and the county was a willing accomplice."
The state, county and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe started negotiations last year as part of a deal for the tribe to resume casino compact payments held in escrow since 2010. Part of the deal called for the payments to resume as long as the land issue was negotiated.
Gray said officials from the governor's office told him last year that Massena would have about 500 acres involved in the deal, but today he learned the final figure is 1,360.
Gray said he thinks the county circumvented the towns because they need the money from the land settlement and the Board of Legislators wants the accomplishment under its belt because it's an election year.
"It is beyond disappointment that this would be settled in this way because of the county's greed and the legislators' need to be re-elected," Gray said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gray said he hadn't heard any news of the deal beyond reading a press release from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.
According to the St. Lawrence County planning office, the Massena lands in question are on county Route 45, Roosevelt Road, Hall Road and Hall Road extension.
"I'm disappointed because the town of Brasher had no input," Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson Jr. said, adding that he doesn't think the county should be getting the share that it is or dictating Brasher's end of the pact. They weren't involved in any talks, he said. The county told Brasher what land would go to the deal and Gray said he was told the same.
Dawson said the area in question, along North Road, State Route 37C and County Route 37 isn't heavily populated. The real issue is the county dictating the deal rather than involving the towns.
"Where do they get the authority? How do they justify it? Because they're the county?" Dawson said. "This was settled on the backs of the people of the town of Brasher.
"[County legislator Tony] Arquiett and [county board chairman Jonathan] Putney have been having secret meetings for the last six months or so."
According to county Board Chairman Jonathan Putney, the agreement represents a "willing buyer, willing seller" situation.
"Landowners have the option of staying as long as they want and selling to whoever they want … there's no eviction, no eminent domain," Putney said.
In addition to a $4 million annual payment from the state's share of casino compact payments, St. Lawrence County will also receive a one-time $2 million signing bonus from the state and $1.5 million from the tribe, when the final deal is inked. The tribe will also release the other half of compact money held in escrow since 2010.
Putney said the state also agreed to conduct an environmental impact study for a “rooftop highway” proposal its proponents call "I-98," and to move forward with the monetization of 20 megawatts of power the River Valley Redevelopment Agency gets from the New York Power Authority. The funds would go to Massena, Louisville, Lisbon and Waddington.
Another aspect of the deal, Putney said, is NYPA will lease a hangar at Massena International Airport, creating a new revenue stream for the town.
In addition to the land, the tribe will get $2 million per year from NYPA for 35 years, up to nine megawatts of low-rate power for the reservation and free tuition for tribe members at any SUNY school.
County, Tribal, State Officials Pleased
Leaders at every level except towns are satisfied with the deal and are calling it a historic event.
“This is a historic time for our Mohawk people, which has been born of the hard work, vision and dedication of many of our leaders over several years,” St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief Paul O. Thompson said. “The terms to which we agree today not only repair our past by allowing our Tribe to recover our lands, but they also provide opportunities for our future generations through education."
“For decades, the state and the Mohawks were at a stalemate. We can now look forward to years of mutual respect and cooperation,” Cuomo said. “I congratulate and thank the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and our partners in county and local government for working together to make today’s agreement a reality.”
“We are proud to stand here with our neighbors from St. Lawrence County and we hope that our friends from Franklin County will also come to the table,” Chief Ron LaFrance of the Tribal Council said. “The settlement of our land matters will benefit our entire region.”
“Our Tribe and our people have worked toward this agreement for 32 years,” said Chief Beverly Cook of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. “Our Council is carrying the work from our past leaders forward."
"It's a fair settlement and a win for all the stakeholders," Putney said. “We did the best we could to represent the interests of the North Country."
"It's time for a settlement … and move forward … as partners," St. Lawrence County administrator Karen St. Hilaire said. "It's an historic day and I'm very, very pleased to see it."
The land claim case came in 1982 because, the tribe says, parts of the original reservation, designated in the 1794 Jay Treaty, were illegally bought by New York state in the early and mid-19th century.
They include about 2,000 acres of the so-called "Bombay Triangle" and several thousand acres in Fort Covington, which are still under negotiation.
The federal Indian Non-Intercourse Act says any land bought or sold from Native Americans needs Congressional approval, which never happened.
In 1982, the tribe brought the initial suit to have the land returned, back rent paid, and compensation made for damage done to Long Sault, Barnhart and Croil Islands by the construction of the St. Lawrence-Roosevelt Power Project and St. Lawrence Seaway.
The case was stalled in federal court for decades. Progress came last year when Gov. Cuomo threatened to take away the exclusivity agreement with the tribe if they didn't resume casino compact payments. The exclusivity deal allowed the Mohawks to be the sole casino operators in the North Country.
The tribe stopped casino payments in 2010, holding them in escrow because, they said, the state violated the deal by allowing an unsanctioned gambling parlor to operate on Ganienkah Territory in Altona.
When the tribe started paying again and released half of the escrow payments, the governor kept the exclusivity deal and started land claim talks.
The area marked in the map as "Area D" shows lands in the town of Massena that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe may be able to buy back from willing sellers as part of Wednesday's land claim deal.