Monday, October 24, 2011

Property Bay Mills Indians Acquired in 2010 not 'Indian Lands;' Not Sovereign or Tax Exempt

Because property is Indian “owned” does not automatically mean those lands are “Indian Lands,” a special and unique designation. Only Indian Lands are considered sovereign and as such exempt from the usual local taxes, fees, codes, regulations and laws. Property that is simply Indian owned is not considered sovereign and not exempt. 
In shutting down the Bay Mills Indian Community’s (BMIC) rogue off-reservation casino in Vanderbilt (MI) last March, the U.S. Federal Court (Judge Paul L. Maloney) ruled that the property the tribe acquired in Vanderbilt during 2010, located 100 miles away from the tribe’s Upper Peninsula reservation, are not Indian Lands. Specifically (from Judge Maloney’s ruling (pgs 10-11):
Section 107(a)(3) authorizes the earnings of the Land Trust to be used for two specific purposes: (1) improvements on tribal land and (2) the consolidation and enhancement of tribal landholdings. Bay Mills does not suggest or argue that the Vanderbilt Tract constitutes an “improvement on tribal land.” Bay Mills defends the purchase as authorized by the second purpose. In the context of this provision, the statutory language has a plain and obvious meaning. The word “consolidate” means “to bring together or unify.”9 The word “enhance” means “to improve or make greater” or “to augment.”10 Obviously, the purchase of the Vanderbilt Tract is an enhancement of tribal landholdings, as the additional land augmented, or made greater, the total land possessed by Bay Mills. However, the statute does not authorize every enhancement. The statute uses the conjunction “and” between the word “consolidation” and the word “enhancement.” The use of the word “and” cannot be ignored. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404 (2000) (“It is, however, a cardinal principle of statutory construction that we must ‘give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute.’”) (citations omitted). In order for the purchase of land to be an “enhancement” authorized by the § 107(a)(3), the purchase must also be a “consolidation.” The statute requires any land purchase to be both a consolidation and an enhancement. Under §107(a)(3), Bay Mills may use the earnings from the land trust to acquire additional land next to, or at least near, its existing tribal landholdings. The statute does not allow Bay Mills to create a patchwork of tribal landholdings across Michigan.

Prior to Judge Maloney’s ruling, both the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) and the U.S. Department of Interior had issued similar opinions. From a memorandum provided to the NIGC Chairwoman, December 2010:
On Wednesday, November 3, the Bay Mills Indian Community opened an off-reservation gaming facility in Vanderbilt, Michigan. The considered opinion of the Department of the Interior Solicitor is that the land is not within a reservation, not held in trust, and not held in restricted fee. Accordingly, the Community’s new casino is not on Indian lands within the meaning of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), 25 U.S.C. §§ 2701- 2721, and the National Indian Gaming Commission lacks jurisdiction over it. We are obligated, therefore, to refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
Specifically by rulings and opinions issued by U.S. District Court, U.S. Department of Interior Solicitor and National Indian Gaming Commission, the Bay Mills Indian Community’s property in Vanderbilt are not Indian Lands.  And by implication, two other similarly acquired parcels BMIC controls in Flint Township (280 miles from its reservation) and Port Huron (350 miles away) are not Indian Lands.

Absent Indian Lands designation, those parcels are not presently sovereign lands, are not eligible for casinos under IGRA, and are not exempt from the usual taxes, fees, codes, regulations and laws. Or to put it another way, those properties should be taxed and fees collected timely as they would for any other such property owner. 

Despite representations, there is currently no need for any special agreements to provide for emergency services or to accept some negotiated fees in lieu of taxes over the Flint Township, Port Huron or Vanderbilt properties. Such would only serve to advantage the tribe's interests going forward not the interests of local taxpayers and citizens or the people of Michigan.

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