05.21.08

Schumer Demands Feds Address Crucial Community Concerns Before Making Final Oneida Land-Trust Decision; Unresolved Issues With Taxes, Regulations Could Deal Fiscal Blow To Madison And Oneida Counties

The Department of the Interior's Final Decision on Putting 13,000 Acres of Land in Madison and Oneida Counties into a Tax-Exempt Federal Land Trust is Expected SoonLocal Communities Still Have Unanswered Questions and Fear Consequences to Local Tax Base, Jurisdictional Coordination and Unequal Development, as much of the Proposed Land into Trust Lies in Heavily Populated AreasSchumer: Feds Must Defer Final Decision Until Concerns are Addressed

With the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) set to make their final decision regarding the Oneida Indian Nation's application to have land taken into a federal taxexempt trust in Madison and Oneida Counties, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called on the federal agency to defer taking land into trust and instead allow time for the Tribe and local community to negotiate an agreement regarding the proposed trust land.  Schumer also told DOI that if it will not defer making its decision, DOI should at least immediately address the concerns of the local communities affected by the land trust decision  including lack of clarity on applicability of federal regulations on environmental and development issues and include crucial tax and financial provisions in its final decision to ensure the county's and town's local economies don't suffer. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) recommended this past February that 13,086 acres of the Tribe's land in Oneida and Madison counties be put into a taxexempt federal trust - a decision that has local residents and officials expressing serious concern over consequences to their community tax bases, jurisdictional cohesion, and local businesses.  

 

Today, in a personal letter to DOI Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Schumer urged the federal agency to address immediately the financial and regulatory concerns of residents in Madison and Oneida counties, as well as take critical steps to mitigate some of the fiscal impacts this landintotrust decision will have on communities across the area. Schumer urged the DOI to withhold a final decision until community concerns had been adequately addressed.

 

"There are some very serious concerns that need to be addressed here before any kind of final decision is made," said Senator Schumer. "Communities across Madison and Oneida are understandably anxious about what this land trust would mean for their local tax base, for their businesses, for future economic development and for the future of the region. In my letter to Secretary Kempthorne today I outlined some key provisions that will ensure an agreement can be reached that satisfies both sides of the table."

 

Following an Oneida Nation request in 2005 that 17,000 acres of land be put into a taxexempt federal trust, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) this past February recommending that 13,000 acres go into trust. In contrast, the counties had asked for only 1,000 acres of the land to be put into trust. The DOI's Final Environmental Impact Study is due sometime soon, although many feel the federal agency has not done enough to address the concerns of residents in Oneida and Madison Counties.  There is an especially glaring lack of clarify on payment of backtaxes, payment of taxes on nontrust land and the applicability of federal environmental and other regulatory regimes on trust land. The final EIS will include a Record of Decision (ROD), the official action which declares the agency's determination.

 

Certain communities across Oneida and Madison counties fear the financial consequences they would suffer if this much land was put into a taxexempt federal trust. Members of the Tribe living on the trust land would not have to pay local property taxes, delivering a blow to the counties' and localities' tax base. The towns of Verona and Stockbridge and the City of Oneida are set to suffer the most, with Verona losing 61%, Stockbridge 14% and the City of Oneida over 9% of its tax base. The counties also fear that the Nation will not be made to pay in full the back taxes it owes, which would deliver a further cut to their local tax base. Schumer asked that the DOI require, as a precondition for taking land into trust, that the Tribe negotiate and fulfill an independent compensation agreement with the towns of Verona and Stockbridge and the city of Oneida.  

 

Another major concern that has, thus far, not been sufficiently clarified is the kind of federal regulations, if any, the Oneidas would be subject to on prospective trust land. Locals argue that the trust would give the Nation freereign over landuse decisions, new development initiatives and environmental matters. With some of the proposed trust land located in wetlands areas, communities across Madison and Oneida counties fear the environmental consequences  and potentially unfair development advantage  of ambiguous federal oversight of the land.  

 

Today, in a personal letter to DOI Secretary Kempthorne, Schumer demanded that the agency address these local concerns immediately, as well as include tax and financial provisions in the final decision that would protect businesses and residents across Madison and Oneida Counties. The current plan, issued this past February by the BIA, does not provide adequate compensation for the potential losses these communities will suffer, Schumer noted.

 

In his letter Secretary Kempthorne today, Schumer specifically asked that the Tribe be required to pay back in full any back taxes still owed. He also asked that a compensation agreement be negotiated with the towns of Verona and Stockbridge and the City of Oneida, which are set to suffer the most fiscally if the deal goes through, as well as insisting that that any infrastructure or wetland development be subject to the same standards as land not taken into trust, protecting environmental and development concerns across the region.

 

Schumer noted in his letter that the situation facing Madison and Oneida counties is especially unique because the area this proposed land into trust lies within is so heavily populated, making this situation differ sharply with other applications where land is taken into trust.  "For instance, in areas in the Western United States, there are wide parcels of land that are taken into trust that exist in sparsely populated areas.  Borders are clear and there are - at times - little interaction between residents of the tribe and others," Schumer wrote. "In this situation, you have noncontiguous parcels of land that will be taken into trust in a densely populated area."

 

Schumer also pushed for the Tribe and Counties negotiate and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or service agreements regarding the parties' respective responsibilities and authorities over issues of public safety, including law enforcement, fire protection, and emergency medical services and observing standards of environmental safety and building codes commonly accepted as standard in municipal activities.

 

The Senator also asked that a final decision on putting land into trust be delayed until these and other concerns are thoroughly addressed, allowing residents of these communities and the Tribe to sit down together and negotiate a settlement that would satisfy both sides of the table.

 

"A negotiated settlement, which I believe is certainly attainable, is preferable to all other options," Schumer wrote. "Because of that, I believe that the best course of action in this situation is to delay taking land into trust until a global settlement has been negotiated between the Tribe and the Counties.  However, regardless of when the government takes title to the land, DOI should answer the above questions and adopt the above provisions as fair protections for the local governments' financial health."



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