2005: Business - Tribe rolls dice for famed links land

The Shinnecock name has long been revered among golfers, as it is the moniker of one of the game’s great clubs that has hosted four U.S. Open championships.

But it assumed more chilling undertones this summer after the Indian nation of the same name filed a federal lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in damages and the return of some 3,600 acres in tony Southampton, N.Y.

Arguing that the property was unfairly seized from them in the mid-1800s, the tribe now wants the land back, which includes Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and other golf gems such as National Golf Links of America and the Southampton Golf Club. The territory in question also encompasses the nascent Sebonac Golf Club – the Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak creation set to open in June.

While the action certainly raises legitimate concerns about the fate of these courses, some legal observers say the Shinnecocks covet something far more valuable than golf courses: casinos.

They say the tribe, which has roughly 1,500 members and an 800-acre reservation located two miles west of Southampton, are using the suit as a negotiating ploy to win gaming rights.

The Shinnecocks have been looking for years to build a casino on their land in eastern Long Island, but town leaders and residents have vigorously challenged such attempts. By filing the lawsuit, the argument goes, the tribe intends to pressure their adversaries into ceasing their anti-gambling protests.

The tactic has worked before, most notably with the Mashantucket Pequots who similarly filed claims against the state of Connecticut to recover seized land. But once the Pequots received the go-ahead to build Foxwoods – the largest casino in the world with a gaming complex spanning 4.7 million square feet – they dropped their land suit.

As further evidence of the Shinnecocks’ ultimate intentions, one need only identify the financial backers of the tribe’s suit: Gateway Funding Associates, a group led by Detroit-based casino developers.

But John Peebles, a California attorney representing the Shinnecocks, maintains his clients’ primary motive is addressing a grievance from long ago. He acknowledges, however, that “the tribe has been looking at the gaming business.”

Not surprisingly, there is palpable worry among Southampton locals and visitors of the idyllic beachside community who fret that a casino would bring piles of problems, including more traffic and crime.

But such concerns take a back seat, at least in the golf community, to worries about the fate of the courses if the Shinnecocks actually gain title to the hallowed grounds. Most legal experts consider such an outcome highly unlikely, but concede it remains a possibility.

“Look at the situation in upstate New York when the Cayuga Indians received a $248 million land claim judgment,” says William W. Esseks, a Long Island attorney who is representing National Golf Links in the Shinnecock case.

In that 2000 case, a judge ruled New York state illegally acquired 64,015 acres of tribal land. Later, the jury awarded the plaintiffs $36.9 million in damages to cover the property’s value at the time and the loss of two centuries of fair market rental. The judge also tacked on a penalty of $211 million to cover interest.

That award, however, was overturned on appeal this summer, about two weeks after the Shinnecock tribe filed its suit. The success of the appeal was based on the argument that it was unreasonable to change title to land after so many years.

Nevertheless, Esseks says, the extent to which the Cayuga successfully advanced their case through the courts underscores the real threat and validity of such legal challenges.

(Officials at the National, Shinnecock and Southampton golf clubs declined to comment, as did Southampton town leaders. Calls to the Sebonac developers were not returned.)

The roots of the Shinnecock case date to 1859, when a group of wealthy New York investors sought to expand a rail line to the eastern end of Long Island. To achieve their goal, they persuaded a group of Shinnecocks to sign a petition deeding them land the tribe owned at the time.

The Shinnecocks have long claimed the signatures were not legitimate.

Furthermore, tribe attorneys argue that regardless of the signatures’ validity,the sale violated the Indian Non-Intercourse Act. In the late 18th century, Congress decreed that any Indian treaties (and the land transfers that so often accompanied them) be approved solely by the federal government. The argument in the Shinnecock case is that a local government, rather than its federal counterpart, approved the railroad property transaction – thus violating the Act and making the deal invalid.

It remains unclear how long this suit will remain in the courts. Attorneys involved in the case say an outcome could be several years away.

Meanwhile, golfers will continue to play in Southampton, no doubt hoping their courses remain the property of their clubs – and wondering what would happen if the Shinnecocks come out on top.

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