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Tribe signs land claim memorandum of understanding with county, state

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MASSENA - The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe took another step toward having lands identified as part of the reservation returned to them when they signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday with St. Lawrence County and New York state officials in Albany. The MOU was a first step toward reaching a negotiated settlement, according to St. Lawrence County Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, who was in Albany with Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, and representatives from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe to sign the memorandum of understanding.

“Today we signed a memorandum of understanding that basically has the framework of negotiations with different parties. Today was clearly a step forward in this process,” he said.

“They’ve been working a year, a year-and-a-half on these discussions. Now they’ve come to the memorandum of understanding on points that can be agreed upon. It’s a matter of setting final documents in place. From here we’ll work up to the final document,” St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The identified lands in St. Lawrence County which the tribe can attempt to acquire from willing sellers include approximately 3,440 acres in the town of Brasher and approximately 1,360 acres in the town of Massena. No one is required to sell, and land can pass on to generations or be sold to anyone.

“It’s willing buyer, willing seller. No land will be taken by eminent domain,” Mr. Putney said.

Once the land is purchased by the tribe or transferred to the tribe in designated areas, it becomes part of the reservation. However, zoning, permitting and environmental issues will be enforced by the tribe and must be at least as strict as the state or the adjoining towns.

In return, once a negotiated settlement is reached, $1.875 million of compact payments that have been placed in escrow will be paid to St. Lawrence County, along with $937,000 that will be paid to each of the towns of Brasher and Massena.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort attracts more than 1.3 million people to the region each year, and has generated more than $86 million in exclusivity payments to New York state since 2005, a portion of which is shared with the local community, in accordance with the tribe’s compact agreement with the state.

The county will also receive a one-time signing bonus of $1.5 million from the tribe and $2 million from the state and an additional $4 million of unrestricted funds annually. The county will pay $750,500 each to the towns of Massena and Brasher, and $500,000 each to the Massena and St. Lawrence central school districts.

“We would be very pleased with anything that is going to flow our way,” Massena Central School Interim Superintendent William H. Flynn said.

He said there was initially some concern that, if the district received money, it would supplant any existing state aid they might receive in the future.

“We’ve had some assurances that will not take place,” he said.

He said his recommendation would be that the payments be put toward the fund balance that’s currently being used to fund their school budgets.

“It will sort of replace some of the money that’s being used now. I think that’s the wisest way to handle it. In the future we will continue to need to use some fund balance. If we can rely on that settlement money to kind of replace what we would be using at least partially, that’s a nice way to continue to sort of cycle money through and back into the budget,” Mr. Flynn said.

Also as part of the MOU, once the negotiated settlement is reached, the assessed value of property sold in the designated areas and returned to the reservation will be calculated, and sufficient payments will be made by the state to hold harmless the taxing jurisdictions in the county, town and school.

As part of the settlement, the New York Power Authority will also enter into a long-term lease agreement with the town of Massena that would provide funding for a new hangar at Massena International Airport.

“When you look at the agreement, you’ll find the town of Massena has a lease from NYPA to lease a hangar. That’s going to provide a nice revenue stream for operations at the Massena Airport,” Mr. Putney said.

State officials will also work with officials in St. Lawrence County and the town of Brasher to authorize motorized vehicle use in the Brasher State Forest. They’ll also work with the county and the town of Colton to authorize ATV use on state Route 56 as part of the county-wide multi-use trail system.

“The county has been working diligently on a county-wide trail system. It’s a revenue generator,” Mr. Arquiett said.

Additionally, state officials will initiate an environmental review process for the state Route 11 bypass around the Canton and Potsdam areas.

“The environmental impact study is the key. We need infrastructure desperately in the north country,” Mr. Putney said.

The state, through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, will also submit legislation that would authorize the monetization of 20 megawatts of hydropower currently dedicated for economic development. Those funds would be authorized for economic development with the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency.

“Besides the ATV issue, which the county strong supports the use of ATVs and recreational trails, we also had the opportunity to address other county-wide areas of significance,” such as the desire for the RVRDA to be able to monetize 20 megawatts of hydropower, Mr. Putney said.

Mr. Putney said, in comparing the financial compensation of the package in the last agreement to the one included in the MOU, “really, it is quite extraordinary.”

Tribal officials, in a press release issued Wednesday afternoon, said they were happy to be working toward a final agreement.

“This is a historic time for our Mohawk people, which has been born of the hard work, vision and dedication of many of our leaders over several years,” Tribal Council Chief Paul O. Thompson said in a release issued by the tribe.

“The terms to which we agree today not only repair our past by allowing our Tribe to recover our lands, but they also provide opportunities for our future generations through education. As tibal leaders, that is our commitment and responsibility - to ensure that our future generations have the opportunities they need, and that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe needs, to succeed and flourish,” he said.

It had been some time in the making, though. A land claim was filed in 1982 asserting that lands purchased in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties were in violation of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1793, and the state had spent millions of dollars in the past 32 years to defend the claim and litigate appeals. The case moved through state and federal courts for decades, but many issues remained unresolved.

State and tribal officials, along with the chairs of both Franklin County agreed to begin talks to in May 2013 to settle the claims, and talks have been on-going for the past year.

“Our tribe and our people have worked toward this agreement for 32 years,” said Chief Beverly Cook of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. “Our council is carrying the work from our past leaders forward. We’ve built on each other’s efforts, and we remain committed to a negotiated settlement that benefits our Mohawk people and our neighbors.”

The MOU, which is also supported by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, outlines terms and benefits for St. Lawrence County, but does not address Franklin County, where negotiations have been on-going to resolve boundary matters.

“We are proud to stand here with our neighbors from St. Lawrence County and we hope that our friends from Franklin County will also come to the table,” Chief Ron LaFrance of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council said. “The settlement of our land matters will benefit our entire region, just as the benefits of our Tribe’s economic expansion have reached far into our neighboring communities.”

Sen. Betty Little said she was under the impression the St. Lawrence County land claim would be settled first, but did not have any further information regarding the status of negotiations in Franklin County.

Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said she hoped negotiations could lead to an agreement settlement in Franklin County.

“As you know, I represent Brasher in my district and I am very glad that it was settled for them. It has been a long time coming. It has taken them 32 years to find an agreement. Discussions about the land claim settlements were something where the governor and the state had to start somewhere,” Ms. Duprey said.

“In regard to the settlement in Franklin County, hopefully the county, municipalities, state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe can come to an agreement on a settlement and then a resolution can be made that is a win-win for all involved. I would like to see all of the Native American land claims settled in the district,” she said.

Franklin County Legislative Chairman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, declined comment on the negotiations taking place between Franklin County and the state and trib.

The agreement between the tribe and St. Lawrence County must be approved by the county Legislature, state Legislature and Congress.

Reporter Whitney Randolph contributed to this report.

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