A modern-day turf war reflecting the tormented racial history of the United States and North America’s indigenous people is continuing to gain intensity along the edges of Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.
Rejecting a cease-and-desist order issued by the New York State Department of Transportation on Friday, May 17, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has announced once again that it will continue to build two 61-foot-high video advertising signs, one each on the north and south sides of the highway, on Shinnecock land the tribe says is sovereign territory, exempt from state and town law.
“Today, the New York State Department of Transportation continued an unfortunate and unjust pattern of mistreatment and total disregard for the economic welfare and sovereignty of the Shinnecock Nation,” the tribal council said in a press release soon after receiving an emailed copy of the state’s order to stop the project.
The tribe said the order was “without any legal basis.”
Before sending the letter telling the tribe and its contractor that they “must immediately cease all operations on Route 27,” the state already had issued two stop-work orders, one on March 30 and another on April 14, and the State Police had ticketed the contractor’s workers at the site. Work on the project began in April.
The Town of Southampton also has issued a stop work order in late April and, in a letter from Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, asked the tribe to abandon the project as a violation of “the spirit of our laws” and the “character of the community.”
Last week’s cease-and-desist letter, signed by DOT Assistant Counsel Norman W. Kee, reads like the opening salvo in a courtroom battle, laying out the legal basis for the state’s position.
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele this week said he felt certain that litigation was in the works but that its venue remained unclear. Governor Cuomo’s office is aware of the standoff, having alerted Mr. Thiele last Friday that the DOT “was taking this action,” he said.
Mr. Kee told the tribe that the sign project “is in violation of New York State Highway Law Section 52 and Vehicle & Traffic Law section 1220-c, both of which bar work in a state highway right-of-way” without a DOT permit.
The DOT had made clear to the tribe, he wrote, that “the work in the Route 27 right-of-way could not be performed” without a permit during meetings on April 10 and 15.
“Furthermore, the Department stated that the construction of commercial advertising in state highway right of ways is barred under state and federal law,” he wrote. “Lastly, the Department addressed our concerns regarding safety of the traveling public should the sign construction continue, both during construction of the signs and upon completion. At both meetings, the Department requested that the work stop immediately.”
Mr. Kee wrote that the tribe’s representatives at both meetings asserted “without basis” that the DOT had no jurisdiction “over the Nation generally and at this location specifically,” claiming the highway right-of-way had been obtained illegally by the state, and that the Nation did not need a DOT permit. They told the state they “would not seek one and warned that the Department should not attempt to issue any further Stop Work Orders,” according to Mr. Kee’s letter.
“Both the Nation and Idon Media,” the tribe’s contractor erecting the signs, “have ignored the Department’s concerns … Moreover, the work in the area has been conducted with insufficient regard for the safety of the traveling public, despite guidance offered by the Department,” Mr. Kee wrote.
“Both entities must immediately cease all operations on Route 27,” Mr. Kee concluded.
“We have been good neighbors since 1650,” the tribal council responded in its press release last Friday, “but our good nature has been met with encroachment, theft of land, racism and double talk. The project in question is going to provide substantial resources to our Nation and allow our people to finally address the economic disparity that has plagued our community for generations.”