FREETOWN — Town voters declared their opposition Tuesday to a tribal casino proposed by the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, in a nonbinding referendum that may hasten the tribe’s pursuit of a legal challenge to the state’s long-held contention that the Aquinnah signed away their federal rights to build a casino.
As another fallback, the tribe, based on Martha’s Vineyard, has been preparing to move ahead with plans to open a high-stakes bingo hall or poker room on the Vineyard, which would further test the state’s position that the Aquinnah cannot host tribal gambling.
The vote failed here Tuesday by a 954-to-308 tally. About 22 percent of registered voters participated.
The federally recognized Aquinnah tribe has proposed a $167 million casino, hotel, and retail development along Route 140 in Freetown and Lakeville, where the tribe holds an option to buy land. A vote in Lakeville is scheduled for June 2.
Lawrence Ashley, a former Freetown selectman, said he is pro-casino, but does not believe a gambling resort belongs in the area targeted by the tribe.
“The location is in the middle of a residential neighborhood and too close to the regional schools,” Ashley said. “They also don’t have a plan, and they’ve been too short on details. It’s like they were saying, ‘We’d like to do this; what do you think?’ Freetown is the investor and needs to know the impact to support this.”
Other voters said they opposed the plans, in order to preserve their town’s quiet character.
Leia Adey, with two young children trailing her, said she moved to the area because it is rural. “The last thing we want is a casino,” she said.
Resident George Wilcox has lived in Freetown for 35 years and wants things to stay the same.
“I think the benefits are far outweighed by the negative aspects,” he said. “The money isn’t going to compensate for the traffic and other impacts on the town.”
Richard Wisniewski cast his ballot in favor of the plan. “I think it’s going to benefit both towns, and be a good partnership for Lakeville and Freetown with the tribe,” he said.
Money is tight for communities, Wisniewski said. “You can’t depend on the state for anything anymore.”
The tribe has said a casino would bring about 1,350 permanent jobs to the area.
Though the vote is not binding, the outcome in Freetown denies the tribe any political momentum to pressure Governor Deval Patrick to back off his position that the Aquinnah lack the legal right to build a tribal casino.
Federal law typically grants tribes the right to negotiate with states over the operating details for tribal casinos, such as how each casino would be regulated and how much of its revenue, if any, would go to the state. The negotiated agreement, called a compact, is a key step to winning federal approval.
Patrick has declined to negotiate with the Aquinnah, citing the state’s legal position that the tribe gave up their casino rights in a land settlement in the 1980s.
State officials maintain that the Aquinnah agreed to subject all of their land to state law, including the new state law that restricts casino gambling to a limited number of facilities approved through a competitive state bidding process.
The Aquinnah say they never surrendered their rights and insist they can develop a casino under the federal process, which would exempt the tribe from the state competition for a commercial casino license.
“Our rights were never extinguished,” said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Aquinnah chairwoman, in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “Our community has been waiting for a very long time for the expanded services the economic development such as gaming will provide,” and the tribe wants its leadership to “pursue all opportunities.”
The governor is negotiating a compact with another tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, for a tribal casino proposed for Taunton. The governor’s office has said the Mashpee qualify for the federal process because they never agreed to land restrictions.
Taunton residents will vote on the proposal on June 9 in another nonbinding referendum.
Tribal gambling can only take place on Indian land, such as land held in trust by the federal government on behalf of the tribe.
Neither the Mashpee nor the Aquinnah yet have trust land on the mainland, though the Aquinnah have trust land on the Vineyard.
Andrews-Maltais said the Aquinnah could use the tribe’s Vineyard land to host forms of gambling that do not require a negotiated compact with the governor, such as high-stakes bingo and poker, in which players pay an entry fee to play against each other, not against the house.
“If we can provide economic development for ourselves [with high-stakes bingo or poker] then the spin-off . . . will be advantageous to the island community as a whole,” said Andrews-Maltais. “This wouldn’t be a destination resort; we want it to be another form of entertainment. We can create a draw for people to come in the shoulder season or the off-season, where maybe they wouldn’t be able to afford it in the high season.”
A high-stakes bingo parlor would still require a license from the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency that oversees tribal gambling, she said.