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St. Lawrence County legislators sign on to Mohawk land claims settlement

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County lawmakers agreed to allow their chairman to sign a Mohawk land claims settlement agreement even though some legislators were cautious about their endorsement.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe signed a memorandum of understanding May 28 with the state and the county to settle land claims that have been in dispute for more than 30 years.

“They need land. They win. We need money. We win,” county Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said Monday. “The state needs to get this off their back.”

The agreement includes a number of provisions, including the potential purchase by members of the St. Regis Tribe of about 3,440 acres in the town of Brasher and about 1,360 acres in the town of Massena.

In return, the agreement includes $1,875,000 for the county in casino gaming compact payments that have been placed in escrow, plus $937,000 each for the towns of Brasher and Massena; annual compact payments estimated at $1.45 million for the county and $725,000 each for Brasher and Massena; a signing bonus of $3.5 million for the county from the state and the tribe; an additional $4 million of unrestricted funds annually for the county, with some of that money going to Massena and Brasher and to St. Lawrence Central and Massena Central school districts; a lease agreement between Massena and New York Power Authority that will help pay for a hangar at the airport; NYPA annual payments for 35 years to the tribe of $2 million; nine megawatts of low-cost power through NYPA for the reservation; and free tuition for Akwesasne Mohawks who qualify for any SUNY school.

In addition, property sales in the affected areas of Massena and Brasher will occur only if the property owner is willing to sell.

The assessed value of the property at the time of sale will determine payments made by the state to hold taxing jurisdictions harmless.

The state will assist in authorizing use of motorized vehicles in Brasher State Forest and in allowing the use of all-terrain vehicles on Route 56 in the town of Colton. The state will begin the environmental review for a Route 11 bypass around Canton and Potsdam. Legislation authorizing the monetization of 20 megawatts of hydropower for economic development is awaiting the signature of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“I think this is one of the most monumental accomplishments this body has ever undertaken,” Legislator Jason A. Clark, D-Norfolk, said. “We’re on the verge of having that solved.”

Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said he would support the agreement, but not without some concerns.

“There’s a history of the state not following through on what they commit to do,” he said. “There’s a history on the part of the tribe.”

Massena and Brasher leaders also have complained about their lack of involvement in the settlement and their financial recompense, he said.

After hearing from Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, that he is trying to arrange informational meetings in Massena and Brasher, Legislator Scott M. Sutherland, R-Pierrepont, asked why legislators should not wait for public input before authorizing an agreement.

The authorization allows the chairman to sign only if a final deal is substantially similar to the memorandum of agreement, which has been widely scrutinized, Mr. Putney said.

Mr. Sutherland echoed Mr. Lightfoot’s cautionary note that written promises can be ignored. The tribe stopped making payments when it considered the state responsible for the continued operation of a gaming operation at Ganienkeh, which violated its exclusivity rights.

“We had an agreement and a party chose not to pay us,” Mr. Sutherland said.

The state has different strategies that could be used if that arises in the future, Mr. Putney said.

Mr. Sutherland also compared the sale of county land to become part of the reservation to the Dutch trade for Manhattan from some Indians for the equivalent of $24 in trinkets.

“What makes St. Lawrence County is land,” he said. “We’ve decided to allow the purchase of our land by another sovereign nation.”

Mr. Putney said the entire continent was originally occupied by native people and that Mohawks feel entitled to more land.

Mr. Sutherland was the only legislator to vote against the authorization. Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, abstained as he is employed by NYPA.

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