Connecticut Towns See Tribal Expansion Plan As Too High Rollin'

SEATED at a video-poker terminal in the noisy, smoke-filled slot-machine room at Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo and Casino is an exasperated Mary Babiartz. For her, gambling is fun enough to make the 2-1/2 hour trip from Hopewell Junction, N.Y. But lately, Foxwoods has been getting awfully crowded.

"Today, I was very unhappy with what I found. It was so jammed that I had to wait around for a machine," she says, pumping quarters into the terminal. "I don't think I'll come again unless I get here by 7 a.m. But then I'll have to get up at 4:30 in the morning."

This casino, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is causing a stir in this rural section of southeastern Connecticut. Local folks, already troubled by the crowded casino, have not taken kindly to the tribe's plans to annex 267 acres of land. The tribe has already purchased the land, and now it hopes to put it into trust, giving it reservation status.

But in this economically depressed New England region, residents say they feel that the Indians are taking over. It is an issue of native American land rights and the promise of jobs vs. the power of citizen activism in local and state land management. Not unique to the state, the debate mirrors one occurring nationwide, says state Sen. Catherine Cook (R).

"This is such an important issue, not just for this region but for the nation as a whole, as we look at Indian gaming and how big it has become in the country and the economic power of native Americans to purchase land and put it in trust status," she says.

The land that the native Americans hope to put into trust lies in three towns - Ledyard, North Stonington, and Preston - and comprises up to 9,000 acres. The decision over the initial 267 acres will be made, though perhaps not for several months, by Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Ada Deer.

Meanwhile, the native Americans are trying to work out an agreement with the towns. Last month, the Pequots proposed giving them $1 million apiece each year for five years if they drop opposition to annexation.

But the response has been overwhelmingly negative. For many residents, putting up with more traffic and crowds is hard enough. But giving up local and state jurisdiction over zoning, environmental, and health regulations for the land is too much.

"We're not against the Indians, jobs, or development," says Ledyard planning director William Haase. "But, at the same time, the local folks want due process [and land control].

But the Pequots aren't to be put off. They argue that the new land is needed for development to help the tribe economically. Indeed, their plans include designs of Disneyland-like scope.

Besides the existing complex - which includes a casino, hotel, and native American museum - the Pequots are planning two more casinos, another hotel, two special-effects theaters, two golf courses, a monorail system, shops, and restaurants.

The Foxwoods gambling palace, which opened in February 1992, draws 15,000 visitors a day and is considered the nation's largest native American-run casino. It reportedly made $20.4 million in profits in June alone. And, since its opening, it has created 4,000 jobs in an area hit hard by defense cutbacks.

A tour of the Foxwoods complex reveals a modern, well-organized operation. Tribal officials maintain that the casino has not attracted crime, drugs, and prostitution the way some people feared. "Ignorance is very scary," says Joey Carter, tribe spokesman. "We have a respectable business, completely legitimate. What people said would happen did not and won't."

Mr. Carter says the tribe has 200 members, 20 of whom are employed by the casino. Money generated from gaming is used to put tribal children through college, provide financial aid to elderly tribe members, and improve community services, he says.

But Mr. Haase and others say the tribe, in annexing more land, is trying to make fast money and sidestep local zoning laws and taxes. "It's not for community development. It's not for tribal housing. Rather, the goal is to annex the land, such that the casino can expand into a Disney or Epcot-style resort unfettered by state or local regulations," Haase says.

Town residents are calling for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to hold a public hearing on the annexation proposal. So far, requests have been denied. Ms. Cook says neither the Department of the Interior nor the BIA - which mostly handle Indian land settlements in the West - understand the region's history and how local government is run. "There is not a great understanding of New England town government," she says. "In New England and in these communities in particular that were settled early, families hav e gone back to the 1660s. The roots are deep here as the tribes are, and we have grown up together."

Carl Shaw, BIA public-affairs director in Washington, says he is confused about the reaction to the trust proposal in Connecticut. "I'm a little bit perplexed at what I find to be a ... whole city or state ... is in some kind of fear that these Indian people are going to take over their state and run it to be their own," he says.

But the Pequot's request is not that unique, he says. "It's not unusual when you look at the tribe there that has a small amount of land in trust," Mr. Shaw says. "My gosh, you look at the [Southwest] Navajo reservation, which is 16 million acres."

In fact, the BIA routinely allows such transactions for tribes across the country, he says. People may not understand that the tribe must first buy the land before it can put it in trust, Shaw adds.

The native Americans, for their part, feel that they deserve rights to the new land that was once their own. In the early 1600s, the Mashantucket Pequots occupied some 2,000 square miles in eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. But with only 1,228 acres of reservation land, today they control only a fraction of what they once had.

What it may all come down to is jobs. "What are we going to do with 26,000 people out of work?" Carter asks. "Maybe gambling is not the way. But after this complex is done, we'll be putting 8,000 to 10,000 people back to work."

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