Restraining Order Against Billboards

Construction of one of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s 61-foot-tall billboards with double-sided 30-foot-high digital screens on the south side of Sunrise Highway has now been completed. Independent/Desirée Keegan

The state Supreme Court has issued a temporary restraining order to stop continued construction of two 61-foot-tall billboards along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.

The notice targeted the seven Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal Trustees and the billboards’ owners — Idon Media of La Quinta, CA — and contractors, according to filed court papers by state Attorney General Letitia James and the commissioner of the State Department of Transportation, which served a stop-work order in the middle of May after the double-sided electronic signs began being built.

“The state and the plaintiff’s state agency have a responsibility by law and to the people of this state to ensure that no person or entity, including a Native American tribe or their co-owner commercial advertising company, can illegally build structures on a state highway that pose significant hazards to the public at large both during and after construction,” the restraining order request read in part.

The complaint states that the Shinnecock Nation did not obtain the proper approval to perform work, and that the billboards pose safety concerns for the more than 15,000 people who travel across that stretch of Southampton Town every day.

“The construction of such massive billboards within the state highway right-of-way creates a substantial threat of harm to all people utilizing that portion of Sunrise Highway,” the notice reads, also stating that if the signs were to fall they “could crush vehicles traversing on Sunrise Highway, as well as completely block the flow of traffic.”

In a response to the action, members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation said they plan to fight the “illegal attack on tribal sovereignty and violation of federal law.”

“One of the inherent attributes of tribal sovereignty possessed by federally-recognized Indian nations is immunity from suit. Accordingly, the Nation, its officials, and its agents acting in furtherance of the Nation’s authority are immune from any and all legal proceedings brought in state courts,” the Shinnecock Nation said in a May 28 press release. “The state has a long history of bulldozing Indian lands and Indian people to get what it wants. We will fight against this most recent effort to attack our tribal sovereignty. The Nation has given notice to the State Supreme Court that it intends to exercise its rights under federal law and will seek a resolution of its rights through the legal process.”

On the same day papers were filed in state court, the Nation registered a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against the State Department of Transportation, the State of New York, and Marie Therese Dominguez, who was nominated this month by the governor to be the next acting commissioner of the DOT. The Shinnecock Nation said that as one of 573 sovereign Indian nations in the United States, it’s granted immunity from lawsuit. The next court date at state Supreme Court is scheduled for Friday, June 7, in Central Islip.

One billboard has been constructed on the south side of Route 27, but still needs some finishing touches, like landscaping and the replacement of its temporary base, according to Lance Gumbs, vice chairman of the Council of Trustees. The billboard along the north side has yet to see much progress. Gumbs said that more than 70 local businesses have expressed interest in buying ad space on the billboards. He added that East End residents have shown so much support that the Nation, after receiving several requests, is planning to start a fund to help offset legal expenses.

But more than that, the Shinnecock Nation stressed the benefits of its project, and how it sees the legal notices threatening the tribe’s economic well-being.

“The state’s lawsuit against Shinnecock officials is a thinly-veiled attack on the Shinnecock Nation and our right of self-determination,” the Shinnecock Nation said in its statement. “Throughout our history, our lands and economic future have been taken from us by the state and the surrounding community. Our goal is simply to generate revenue to provide for our people.”

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