BY ALFONSO A. CASTILLO
It's not the Shinnecock Indian Nation that is looking to make waves by building a casino on land it has always called its own, but rather it's the Town of Southampton complicating matters by wrongfully enforcing zoning laws there, an attorney for the tribe said Thursday on the final day of a federal trial that could shape gaming on Long Island.
"It is a case for confirmation of sovereignty that already exists and has existed for centuries," the Shinnecocks' attorney, Christopher Lunding of Manhattan, said in his closing statement in the Central Islip courtroom.
Lunding's words came during a four-hour summation in the non-jury trial, which began last year, and followed the town's closing statements delivered Wednesday.
In a brief rebuttal, Southampton attorney Michael Cohen scoffed at the notion that the Shinnecocks are not looking to shake things up, and said that the tribe's immediate plan for development is not the issue.
"If the defendants are given free reign, they can do whatever they want at Westwoods," Cohen said, referring to the property in Hampton Bays. "And there is nothing the town or anybody can do to stop them."
Although the tribe legally owns the 79-acre tract now, it must prove it has "aboriginal title" to the land in order for it to be officially recognized as part of the main reservation to the east in Southampton, where gaming may be permitted under federal law.
With the trial now concluded, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Bianco will decide if the town can block tribe plans for the land. He gave no indication Thursday when he expected to release his ruling.
"Our story is before the judge and we're happy that at least this part is finished," said Shinnecock communications director Beverly Jensen, who sat in court with several other tribe members.
Regardless of Bianco's ruling, the Shinnecocks still have to get federal recognition as a sovereign tribe before moving forward with plans for a casino. That could be years away.
Summing up all the evidence he produced in the trial, Lunding Thursday offered various government records, including current county tax maps, that have historically referred to the Westwoods property as an Indian reservation. He also cited historical records, including journals from tribal elders, that described Shinnecocks living on and using the land throughout the centuries.
Lunding said, despite the town's contentions, no transaction between the Indians and European settlers ever extinguished the Shinnecocks' aboriginal title to the land.
Lunding also said town and state officials, who are also opposed to the project, are both projecting a "mega casino" that has "no basis in reality."
"The Sears Tower could be constructed at Westwoods -- at least it would fit in the space available. But so what?" Lunding said. "The fact that you can squeeze Foxwoods 2 into Westwoods is irrelevant."