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Mohawk tribe signs land claim memo with St. Lawrence County, state

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MASSENA — The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe took an important step Wednesday toward having designated land in Brasher and Massena transferred to its reservation when it signed a memorandum of understanding with St. Lawrence County and state officials in Albany.

The memorandum puts the parties on the path to a final settlement that will bring millions of dollars from the tribe and the state to the cash-starved county.

It “basically has the framework of negotiations with different parties,” said county Board of Legislators Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, who was in Albany with Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, and tribal representatives. “Today was clearly a step forward in this process.”

“From here we’ll work up to the final document,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The identified lands in St. Lawrence County that the tribe can attempt to acquire from willing sellers include approximately 3,440 acres in the town of Brasher stretching from the reservation boundary along North Road to just outside the hamlet of Helena and about 1,360 acres in the town of Massena, primarily in the Rooseveltown area. 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 casino gaming compact payments that have been placed in escrow will be paid to St. Lawrence County, along with $937,000 that will be paid each to the towns of Brasher and Massena.

The county also will 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.

Also as part of the memorandum, 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 districts.

As part of the settlement, the New York Power Authority will 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 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 Route 56 as part of the countywide multiuse trail system.

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

Additionally, state officials will initiate an environmental review for a 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 submit legislation that would authorize the monetization of 20 megawatts of hydropower 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 countywide areas of significance,” such as the desire for the River Agency to be able to monetize the specified amount 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.

“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 tribal 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,” Tribal Council Chief Paul O. Thompson said in the release.

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 ongoing to resolve boundary matters.

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

Local officials from the towns of Brasher and Massena were highly critical of the negotiating process that led to the settlement, saying they were shut out of a process that will result in hundreds of acres of land being removed from their municipalities. They rapped the role played by county legislators in reaching the settlement.

“At the end of July I was summoned to Albany by the governor’s office to discuss the land claims. In that meeting I was assured that negotiations would continue with the town of Massena playing a role,” Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said. “This was apparently a lie. I don’t know who lied to me, but I’ll lay that at the governor’s feet. His staff lied to me, so I consider that a lie from the governor.”

Mr. Gray also said that since the county participated in the negotiations and was willing to leave both the towns of Massena and Brasher out of the discussions, he feels it played a role in the lie.

“St. Lawrence County was a willing lap dog and accomplice in that lie,” he said. “The county loses nothing in this whole process. We, however, will lose a portion of our town and an entire community. This agreement is short-sighted and, from what I see, based on the county’s desperate need for more cash to feed its spending addiction.”

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