Judge rejects New York counties’ land trust challenges

Verona, New York (AP) 10-09

A federal judge has upheld the U.S. Department of Interior’s authority to put more than 13,000 acres of upstate New York land into trust for the Oneida Indian Nation.

New York state and Madison and Oneida counties had argued that former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne’s decision authorizing the transfer of about 20 square miles was unconstitutional and exceeded his authority. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn rejected their arguments.

Land held in federal trust is exempt from local and state laws and taxes, but subject to most federal laws.

“Although the preferred outcome is a negotiated settlement, absent that possibility, we are pleased with this decision,” the nation said in a statement.

In a 30-page decision issued last September in Albany, Kahn also determined the state and counties would not be harmed by the transfer of a separate 18 acres into trust, approved in December, and therefore had no standing to contest it.


Kahn also dismissed the state and counties’ argument that the tribe’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“It’s not a surprise. We expected that it would be difficult for us to win these motions,” said attorney David Schraver, who represents the two counties.

“His decision is not likely to be the last word,” Schraver said. The state and county were seeking a summary judgment to immediately halt the transfer.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office said it had received the decision and was reviewing it.

Schraver said he would discuss the ruling with county officials, but expected the counties would continue their challenges.

An appeal cannot be filed until Kahn decides all the motions in the case, Schraver said.

A number of procedural issues remain. The counties and state have also claimed the decision was arbitrary and not supported by the record. They also claim there was inappropriate influence by Oneida lobbyists during the decision process.

After a contentious three-year review, Interior Department officials recommended in May 2008 placing 13,004 acres into trust. The Oneidas had asked to put 17,370 acres into trust.

In December, the agency put an 18-acre parcel of U.S. Air Force surplus land into trust for the Oneidas under a provision of the Base Realignment and Closure law. The land in Oneida County was not part of the tribe’s trust request or the Interior Department recommendation.

The Oneidas once possessed about 300,000 acres within their reservation, nearly all of which they claim was illegally conveyed to the state without federal approval. The tribe also has a land claim pending in federal court.

Earlier this summer, the Oneidas offered Oneida County $55 million to drop its challenges, but county lawmakers rejected the offer.