Appeals Court Reverses Ruling Blocking Tribe's Casino Bid

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 lower court ruling, the three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal noted that the federally recognized tribe has established a housing program that's built about 30 residential units, operates a health clinic and administers various education and social service programs for tribe members.

It also has two rangers who enforce conservation policies and other tribal laws as well as a part-time judge, a range of ordinances and inter-government agreements with the town of Aquinnah.

U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor in 2015 had ruled in favor of Aquinnah and the state, which had jointly taken the tribe to court to block the gambling development.

The town and state also had argued that a 1983 agreement granting the tribe nearly 500 acres on the famous resort island specifically prohibits gambling. The tribe maintained it was within its rights to conduct limited gambling.

The tribe proposes turning an unfinished community center into a gambling facility housing up to 300 electronic betting machines. It hasn't proposed offering casino table games such as blackjack or roulette.

Town officials will meet Thursday to consider their legal options, said their lawyer, Ronald Rappaport, who declined to elaborate.

Spokespersons for the tribe, state Attorney General Maura Healey's office and a local community group also involved in the litigation didn't immediately comment.

In recent years, the casino debate has roiled the otherwise quiet, sparsely populated western edge of Martha's Vineyard where former President Barack Obama spent many of his summers while in office.

Some of the most vocal opposition came from the roughly 1,200-member tribe's island-dwelling minority, who echoed the concerns of non-tribal residents about the traffic, crime and other social problems a casino could bring.

Supporters within the tribe have countered that casino revenues, which tribal leaders have suggested could be as much as $4.5 million a year, would allow their government to offer more critical services where the majority of its citizens live off island, in parts of southeastern Massachusetts near the Rhode Island state line.

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