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Proposed land claims settlement leaves Massena and Brasher supervisors dissatisfied

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Supervisors of the towns of Massena and Brasher are grumbling over a proposed St. Regis Mohawk Tribe land claims settlement between the state and St. Lawrence County that leaves them out of the negotiating loop.

“We have not been consulted,” Brasher Supervisor M. James Dawson said. “We have been announced to. I think we should have been involved. We shouldn’t be dictated to. I think there’s been a big rush to push this thing through.”

The county recently met with town officials to update them on negotiations. The talks were jump-started last year after the state said it would work with the tribe on a land claims settlement as part of a package deal in which the Mohawks would resume paying gaming compact funds.

Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said he was under the impression the towns would be directly involved. “That has not proven to be true,” Mr. Gray said. “That was a little bit discouraging. What we heard was ‘this is what we’ve been given and here’s your share.’”

The tentative deal is for the county to receive $1.5 million annually, the towns of Massena and Brasher each to get $750,000 yearly and Massena Central School and St. Lawrence Central School each to obtain $500,000 annually.

There would be no forced sales. Land sales in the affected areas which would become part of the reservation would be from a willing seller to a willing buyer.

Mr. Dawson said he thought about 3,000 acres in Brasher contiguous to the reservation were affected. County representatives in Massena said the affected land was 1,500 acres, Mr. Gray said.

The towns would be “held harmless” so they would not lose taxes from land that became part of the reservation.

But it is not clear how that would be calculated. Massena would like an amount based on current assessment with an escalator clause, Mr. Gray said. “I’ve seen nothing in black and white,” he said. “We’re a long way from a deal, in my opinion.”

Many questions remain, such as how sales of individual properties in the townships that would become reservation lands would affect zoning, road maintenance and other town services. There’s a lot of things up in the air,” Mr. Dawson said. “The devil’s in the details. I don’t think any of those things have been worked out.”

Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said the meeting was a step in the process. “The intent was to have clear communications regarding this issue that could affect that portion of the county,” he said.

He declined to answer other questions. “There will come an appropriate time to discuss this in greater depth,” Mr. Putney said. “Now’s not the appropriate time.” Mr. Putney said he could not provide a time frame for when a deal might be finalized. “That’s to be determined,” he said.

The tribe issued a statement last week after news broke that a deal might be near.

“The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has been in negotiations with New York state over land claims for years,” the statement said. “In the past year, the negotiations have progressed and a preliminary agreement between New York state, St. Lawrence County and the tribe is actively being discussed, but has not been finalized. The negotiations are ongoing and it would be premature to comment at this time.”

Mr. Gray said he was not sure how the schools became part of the deal’s financial recompense and wondered if any money they received as part of the settlement would affect their other state aid.

The town of Massena was party to a land claim lawsuit filed by St. Regis Mohawks, but most of the claims against the town were thrown out by a federal judge last year. “There aren’t any land claims in Massena, so what am I doing here?” Mr. Gray said.

Brasher was not a part of the original lawsuit.

“We are a quote-unquote ‘volunteer,’ and for that we should have just compensation,” Mr. Dawson said. “There needs to be a carrot to be a volunteer. I would like an amicable consensus.”

The supervisors also questioned the monetary split among the towns and county.

“We will lose part of our community,” Mr. Gray said. “The county can’t say the same.”

Franklin County Manager Thomas Leitz did not return a call for comment on negotiations in his county. The tribe is not directly involved with the counties, said Allyson M. Doctor, the tribe’s director of communications. “The negotiations are between the state and counties,” she said.

The state could benefit by reaching a settlement with St. Lawrence County first, Mr. Gray said. “If half the land claim is settled, how much pressure does that put on Franklin County?” he asked.

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