Press-Republican

August 16, 2013

Judge tosses land-claim section

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — AKWESASNE — Foreclosure proceedings can begin on land within the disputed Hogansburg/Bombay Triangle, following dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

But the parcels will not be sold while possible settlement of land-claim issues between the tribe, the state, Franklin County and St. Lawrence County remains on the table.

U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn ruled this week that his court lacks jurisdiction over state and municipal building codes, licensing and taxing powers for the roughly 2,000 acres of land that the tribe says was taken illegally from its designated reservation boundaries that were established in 1796.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council issued a statement, saying the judge did not respond to the legal question posed to him in the 2009 lawsuit and that the tribe still holds out hope a settlement can be reached between all parties.

“Judge Kahn has ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the tribe’s claim that the Hogansburg Triangle continued to be part of the tribe’s reservation on the legally erroneous ground that the tribe was seeking to have him interpret a federal law that defines the extent of the state’s jurisdiction,” the statement reads.

“The tribe did not ask him to interpret that law, and the tribe was not relying on that law to establish the court’s jurisdiction. In a wholly muddled ruling, the court has answered a question that was not asked and failed to answer the federal question that was asked — is the triangle within the boundaries of the reservation?

“That question having been left unresolved, the tribe and its members will continue to refuse to comply with any state or local laws since, in the tribe’s view, the land is reservation land and not within the jurisdiction of the state or local authorities except as defined by Congress.

“That being said, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe continues to believe that the only true, long-term resolution of our land and jurisdictional issues comes from a negotiated settlement with the state and local governments, and we remain committed to pursuing that result with the assistance of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff.”

There are 194 parcels in the disputed area, and 105 of them carry a total of $7,911,814 in unpaid taxes as of the end of June.

Some of the unpaid balances have been on the books since 1978, according to the County Treasurer’s Office.

Previous foreclosure proceedings were conducted on 75 parcels, “but through our long-standing policy and an agreement between the county and the Mohawks, none of the properties will be sold if they are owned or occupied by Native Americans,” County Treasurer Bryon Varin said.

“We own a number of parcels, but we have not sold any of them,” he said, adding that even though he intends to hold a county land sale later this year, the triangle lands will not be included.

If an agreement is reached, a likely settlement will include reimbursement to Franklin County for the $8 million it has paid, making taxing entities whole and added compensation when parcels are taken off the tax rolls and awarded tax-exempt status as part of the Akwesasne reservation.

In a related ruling last month, Kahn determined that it would be unfair to uproot the families occupying the disputed lands and said the Hogansburg/Bombay Triangle was part of the reservation as set forth on a treaty in 1796.

He said U.S. Census data showed Mohawks owned and occupied land in the triangle and that it “does not have a clearly ‘non-Indian’ character.”

Kahn at that time also affirmed recommendations made in October 2012 by another federal judge who dismissed the tribe’s claim to about 10,000 acres in the towns of Massena and Fort Covington and three islands in the St. Lawrence River, including Barnhart Island, on which the New York Power Authority Robert Moses Power Dam stands.

Email Denise A. Raymo:draymo@pressrepublican.com