The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head said they won federal approval of their land claims to clear the way for casino-style gambling on Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy Massachusetts enclave best known as a presidential vacationland.
“We are announcing that we will probably be the first gaming site in the commonwealth,” Tribe Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, said today in a conference call with reporters. “We’ve been able to secure our federal approvals.”
The news prompted a flurry of snarky comments on Twitter Inc.’s website and elicited shock in the State House, where legislative leaders have fought plans to bring gambling to the Vineyard, as it’s known, for decades. The gaming hall would be in Aquinnah, near Gay Head, one of the most exclusive areas on one of the most well-heeled islands in the state. One Twitter user suggested calling the parlor “Caesar’s Preppy Palace.”
The tribe received a legal opinion from Eric Shepard, the acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission, last month. Shepard said the Gay Head Wampanoags are eligible to build a class 2 casino, which can include slot machines and card games such as poker, according to a letter the tribe provided. The tribe owns 485 acres in the Vineyard town of Aquinnah, which is the Wampanoag word for Gay Head.
The tribe will open a temporary slot parlor at a community center within months with “hundreds, not thousands,” of the gaming machines, Andrews-Maltais said. The tribe also plans to build a permanent facility on the island, she said.
“We want to be sure we are consistent with the modesty we think should be there,” Andrews-Maltais said. “We want to be sure we don’t overbuild.”
Andrews-Maltais said she doesn’t need any additional local or state approval to move forward with the plans. The Gay Head tribe is one of five Wampanoag branches in Massachusetts, including the Mashpee band on nearby Cape Cod.
Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick, declined to comment today, saying the governor’s office hadn’t yet received formal notification of the plan. Martha’s Vineyard can only be reached by air or boat, and the state operates a ferry service connecting residents and vacationers to Cape Cod.
Aquinnah Selectman Spencer Booker, who is a Wampanoag, said the tribe would need the town’s permission to move forward with the project, citing municipal lawyers. Booker said the town would challenge the tribe in court if it went ahead with its plans without seeking local input.
“Our town lawyers have said unequivocally that the tribe would need permission from the town,” he said by telephone.
The tribe also said it is pursuing a class 3 gambling compact with the state, to permit more casino-style table games.
The news of plans for gaming on the island’s scenic and remote southwest end shocked the Massachusetts political establishment, which is in the midst of enacting a new gambling law intended to bring three casinos to the state and one slot parlor. The Wampanoag plan could mean an unanticipated addition that lawmakers have fought to prevent for decades.
“Are you serious? I’m speechless,” state Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, told the State House News Service. “After everything and all we’ve been working on, this comes as a huge surprise.”
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts legislature gave final approval for a class 3 gambling compact with the Mashpee Wampanoags for a site in Taunton, a city in southeastern Massachusetts, the News Service said. Patrick, a Democrat, is expected to sign it.
Aquinnah is one of several towns on Martha’s Vineyard and is next to Chilmark, where President Barack Obama vacationed last summer. Former President Bill Clinton and his family also frequented the island. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former first lady, owned an estate near Gay Head, and her son, John F. Kennedy Jr., died in a 1999 plane crash en route to the island.
The median sale price of a single-family home in Aquinnah in the past six months was $1.4 million, according to the Warren Group, a real estate research firm based in Boston. Caroline Kennedy, Jackie Onassis’s daughter, recently put 90 acres up for sale in the town, asking $45 million for two parcels.
Selectman Booker said he’s personally opposed to a slot parlor and would like the town of 400 residents to vote on it. “It does not sit well with me,” he said.
Andrews-Maltais said that she believes the people of Martha’s Vineyard will eventually embrace the plan.
“There seems to be a tremendous appetite for gambling,” she said. “We have, every four to six months, some kind of Las Vegas night fundraiser and they do very well.”
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