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'It's flawed in many ways': Cayuga County, local officials respond to Cayuga Nation land case

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Cayuga Nation protest sign

A Cayuga Nation land claim protest sign in Union Springs. 

Local officials have been given a little more time to formulate a response to the recently reincarnated Cayuga Nation land trust application, but it's an extension they say is not enough to allow for a fair and thorough review.

On April 5, Cayuga County and the affected municipalities received a notice from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs that it has resumed consideration of a 2005 application by the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York for the U.S. to acquire and hold in trust six of the Cayuga Nation's parcels. Putting land into federal trust would exempt it from local taxes and use regulations, a status the nation has long argued it is entitled to have as a sovereign nation.

Of the parcels requested for federal trust, four are in Cayuga County and two are in Seneca Falls. With Cayuga County, three parcels are in the village of Union Springs and one is in the town of Springport. Of the nearly 130 acres requested in entirety, the parcels requested in Union Spring total 111 acres, which is 10 percent of the village's taxable land.

The notice of the application's consideration requested and invited municipalities, counties and other affected government entities to submit comments. Data was requested for the BIA's secretary to be able to "assess the impact of the removal of this property from the tax rolls." Government entities were given 30 days to respond to the notice, and up to a 30-day extension could be granted if a written explanation could justify the need for additional time.

Cayuga County responded by requesting a 120-day extension on behalf of the county, Union Springs and Springport.

Attorney Philip Spellane of the Harris Beach law firm, hired to represent the county on the matter, requested the extension via a letter addressed to Acting Regional Director of BIA Bruce W. Maytubby on May 4. Spellane claimed that much has changed in the passage of time since the original 2005 application and the involved entities need more time to be able to fully assess the potential impact of the application.

Cayuga County received a response from the BIA on May 15, which acknowledged the requested 120-day extension but was granted just 30 more days.

"While we understand your desire to provide a comprehensive response, your comments need not be extensive and can be based on information currently on hand," the BIA's letter read. "Additionally, as stated in your request, the application has been pending for several years. As such, it has been the subject of at least one previous request for comments on the potential impacts ... we believe a 30-day extension of time in which to submit additional comments would be appropriate."

The letter said the county, town, and village now have until the close of business June 11 to provide comments.

County Administrator J. Justin Woods said on Thursday that the 30-day extension "is really insufficient ... that's not sufficient to (comprehensively) respond to the application." He added that the county is mid-discussion with its attorneys and the town and village lawyers about an appropriate response and next steps.

In the county's request for more time, attorney Spellane explained that Cayuga Nation's 2005 application was "officially dismissed" by the BIA in 2011 due to finding it incomplete. The understanding was that to be reconsidered, the Nation would need to file a new application with the BIA to be considered again. Spellane claims in the letter that "it appears BIA has decided to resume consideration of the Nation's original 2005 applications." If a new application was submitted, Spellane explained, the county, town and village did not receive a notice, which violates the BIA's requirement set in the 2011 decision to notify the entities.

In a press release in 2011, the BIA said it dismissed the application because the nation "did not address all of the requirements contained in the Department's regulations," and then informed the county that the BIA "would not even take action on any new application until the Nation settled it's leadership dispute."

The federal agency believes that dispute has ended. Clint Halftown's council, the Cayuga Nation Council, was recognized as the nation's governing body by the BIA in 2016. Halftown and four other council representatives from different clans led a voting campaign against the former Unity Council in the summer of 2016, and Maytubby said the campaign — resulting in Halftown's council winning as it was the only council on the ballot — was a valid resolution to the tribal leadership dispute. Then in the summer of 2017, the federal Interior Department upheld the BIA's decision to recognize Halftown and his council as the Nation's leaders. A court challenge from other nation members to that ruling is pending, but the BIA is moving forward with the land-into-trust review.

In the county's 120-day-extension request, attorney Spellane went on to illustrate specific areas in which the nation's application was incomplete and he said it relied on various documents that are now more than 10 years old.

"We need time to assess the needs of the local communities that have developed since the trust applications were submitted 13 years ago," Spellane wrote.

Union Springs and Springport also expressed opposition to the application.

Springport Town Supervisor David Schenck wrote a response back to the BIA about two weeks after receiving the notice. Schenck explained he was not in favor of the land, nearly four acres in the town, being placed into trust and said the town's annual estimated loss of tax revenue — if the application were approved — would be more than $50,000. Schenck said in an interview that he believes this is inequitable to residents and it would hurt the town.

Union Springs Mayor Bud Shattuck did not write a response because the county's request was made on the village's behalf, but said "our take on (the application) is it's flawed in many ways." Shattuck also agreed the 30-day extension provided for was insufficient to produce the requested information. 

"It's important that we're represented in New York state," Shattuck said, as the village could lose 10 percent of its taxable land if the application were approved. "Our thought is you just can't put land into trust."

Reached last week, Halftown said that if the local government entities have concerns about the application being the same, that's a concern for the federal government to field, not the Cayuga Nation. Halftown said he doesn't know if the application has changed since 2005 as it was prepared by lawyers on behalf of the Nation.

Halftown said he hopes that after 13 years of waiting, the Trump administration can help the nation regain land that was promised to them. He said historically the Cayuga Nation "has always been there ... we have been here since before you guys came here."

Cayuga nation land claim

Parcels proposed to be acquired in trust as listed in the notice from BIA sent to the county and municipalities. 

Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.


Towns Reporter