Vineyard Gazette Online

Tribe Plans Two Buildings at Headquarters


The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is launching two large building projects on the 190 acres of tribal land surrounding their headquarters in Aquinnah.

Over the next year and a half, the tribe plans to construct a community health center and a health and human services facility. The new structures are part of the tribe's master plan - a wish list of meeting rooms, health clinics, playing fields and a campsite the Wampanoags hope to complete in the next five years.

"We've always had wild dreams, but funding necessitates what we do," said Beverly Wright, chairperson of the tribal council.

At least one dream, a 9,200 square-feet community center, may be just months away from reality. The tribe has secured a half-million dollar federal grant, and an army of volunteers - literally - will be arriving this spring to construct the center. A branch of the United States Air Force Reserve arrives mid-May to build the first phase of the center - 6,500 square feet of space for a gym, a stage, commercial kitchen and restrooms.

The flurry of planned activity comes at a pivotal moment for the tribe, the town of Aquinnah and the Island. In 2001, a simple zoning matter - the tribe's failure to secure a building permit for a small shed - triggered court battles which are still proceeding. At stake: a 1983 Indian land claims settlement agreement that says land conveyed to the tribe is subject to state and local zoning laws.

Last June, a superior court justice determined the federally-recognized Wampanoag Tribe cannot be sued because of sovereign immunity. The ruling, if it stands, leaves the town with no legal remedy to enforce zoning. The town backed away from an appeal of the decision, but the state's attorney general, the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. and the Benton Family Trust are awaiting a hearing of the appeal by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Wampanoag Land Use Commission, a group of five tribal members, will review the community center project later this month. Tribal leaders say they have no intentions of filing plans with Aquinnah town boards or the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

"We permit ourselves," said Ms. Wright.

Asked if the town would consider intervening in the construction of the community center, selectman James Newman said: "At this point, we're not going to pursue that. It would only escalate the situation.

"They follow the same zoning regulations that we do," he said. "Until the courts change that, there's nothing that the town could do." The Wampanoag Land Use Commission, more than four years old, uses Aquinnah zoning regulations as a baseline for reviewing projects, tribal leaders said.

Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said yesterday he is uncertain whether the project should be reviewed by the MVC as a development of regional impact. The commission's standards and criteria say that a public building over 2,000 square feet and to be used by residents of more than one town should be reviewed as a DRI.

For the last six months, selectman Michael Hebert has been meeting with tribal leaders to negotiate how to settle any land disputes that may arise between the tribe and Aquinnah government down the road. Mr. Newman said the board of selectmen has not been briefed on the progress of these talks.

Yesterday, the state attorney general's office and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association were surprised by news of upcoming construction projects on tribal land, but had little more to say about the development.

"It was always our view that the shed was a small building that raised a large issue. Now, you have a much larger building raising the same issue," said James Quarles 3rd, a partner at Hale & Dorr in Washington, D.C., who represents the community association.

In the meantime, Wampanoag leaders are anxious to get started on their community center. The 1,000 tribal members rely on the 10-year-old headquarters building for everything from cooking classes, morning aerobics, administrative offices, health clinics and official meetings.

"It was obvious in 1994 [when we moved in], that we were at capacity," said Ms. Wright. Now, younger tribal members are expressing more interest in space for their programs.

By summer's end, the tribe expects its youth to be shooting hoops in a brand new gymnasium just a stone's throw from the headquarters. A year from now, Wampanoag leaders say they intend for the tribe's 15 youngest members to be attending daycare in the same building.

Before long, a campsite will adjoin the community center - aimed for out-of-town Wampanoags visiting the tribe's headquarters. Next, several acres of land will be cleared for playing fields for youth. One day, leaders hope to have another building for their natural resources offices and programs.

"Aquinnah doesn't have any big open spaces for soccer and football. Going down to West Tisbury is unreasonable travel for a child under 15," said Richard Randolph, an associate planner for the tribe.

The tribe intends to start construction on a 4,500 square-foot health and human services building at the beginning of 2005. Currently, visiting physicians, a psychologist and a full-time nurse treat patients in cramped quarters in the downstairs of the headquarters building. For privacy issues alone, a separate building for health programs is needed, said Freddy Rundlet, director of the tribe's health program.

"You wouldn't want to go to the West Tisbury town hall to see your physician," said Mr. Rundlet.

More space, he said, would allow the tribe to expand the scope of its services. Currently, the tribe offers not only doctor visits on site, but also eye and diabetes clinics as well as sessions for mental health patients. Mr. Rundlet said the new building could provide a laboratory, a pharmacy and dental care on site. The tribe will receive another half-million federal grant for the project.

The tribe is currently cleaning up the three-acre site slated for the community center. The area has been clear cut for some time, but clean fill, relocated there when the tribe constructed housing in 1995, now clutters the site. Tribal leaders say they want the site and materials to be ready for the Air Force's arrival in May.

This special unit of the Air Force - which the tribe said helps nonprofit groups with construction projects and gives priority to requests from federally recognized tribes - was originally commissioned by the Wampanoags several years ago to construct the health and human services building. When funding for that project was put on hold, tribal leaders asked if the crew would help with the community center building instead.

The unit of 30 reservists will be staying at a hotel down-Island through mid-July.

Both Ms. Wright and Mr. Rundlet expressed interest in sharing their new facilities with non-tribal members. Already, the headquarters building is licensed by the American Red Cross as an emergency shelter. They hope to transfer that designation to the new community center.

"The town of Aquinnah could use this [community center] for other programs. We're always willing to share with the town," said Ms. Wright.

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