The group of Taunton property owners who have sued to block the Mashpee Wampanoag from building a $1 billion casino stepped up their legal challenge Friday by asking a court to halt construction on the project, at least temporarily.
In filing for an injunction in federal court, the residents renewed their efforts to derail the massive project, which is slated to open next summer.
If granted by a judge, an injunction would force the tribe to halt construction until the lawsuit is resolved, which could take years. The tribe broke ground on the casino in April, and has begun work at the 150-acre parcel, a former office park.
“The tribe has demolished buildings, clear cut trees and used heavy equipment for grading,” according to the filing in US District Court in Boston. “The property is now fairly described as a moonscape.”
“These significant changes to the property are causing irreparable harm” to the property owners who filed suit and who live near the construction site, the filing stated.
Tribal leaders and their investors have said for months they are confident they will prevail in court, and chose to begin construction despite the possibility of legal intervention.
The legal maneuver comes one month after the state Gaming Commission rejected plans for a casino in Brockton, giving the Mashpee exclusive rights to operate a resort casino in Southeastern Massachusetts. The commission’s decision avoided the prospect of two large casinos being built in close proximity, but ran the risk that the lawsuit would derail the Taunton plan, leaving the region with no full-scale casino.
The lawsuit contends that the federal government acted unlawfully last year when it approved the tribe’s request to designate the Taunton property as a sovereign reservation, clearing the way for a casino.
Lawyers for the Taunton residents have seized on a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling, known as the Carcieri decision, that seemed to restrict eligibility for reservations to tribes that had an official relationship with the federal government in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted.
That law, sometimes called the “Indian New Deal,” authorized the government to acquire property “for the purpose of providing land for Indians.”
The lawsuit asserts that the tribe’s relationship with the government did not officially begin until 2007, long after the Carcieri decision’s cutoff date. It contends the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, glossed over that “inconvenient truth” in its rush to approve the Mashpee reservation.
“The federal government grossly overstepped its authority,” Adam Bond, a lawyer representing the Taunton residents, has said, citing a “plain reading” of the Carcieri case.
“We are prepared to take our case all the way” to the Supreme Court if necessary, he said.
Tribal leaders say they have the full weight of the US government behind them, including the Justice Department to defend the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision.
So far, no court has granted an injunction to halt construction of a tribal casino.