The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s 62-foot electronic billboard will remain lit and operating along the eastbound side of Sunrise Highway, in the short stretch that runs through tribal lands adjacent to Hampton Bays. And it appears the as-yet-unfinished duplicate billboard will be completed directly across from it on the westbound side of the highway.
On Monday, May 18, New York State Supreme Court Judge Sanford Berland denied the State’s request to block the construction and operation of Shinnecock Indian Nation’s “monument signs.” The Judge’s ruling dissolves a temporary restraining order issued on May 24, 2019, in a lawsuit brought by the New York State Attorney General’s Office against the officers of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, soon after the first sign was operational, but before the second billboard could be completed.
“Our signs are clearly within the Shinnecock Territory Monument,” the Shinnecock Nation Council of Trustees says in a statement released Tuesday. “It is the Shinnecock Nation’s right to conduct economic development on Nation lands.”
Over the Nation’s objections, Berland reached and rejected the merits of the State’s arguments that the Nation lacked jurisdiction over the land and that the sign itself posed a hazard to the broader community.
In particular, Berland relied on the U.S. Department of Interior’s findings in the Nation’s federal acknowledgment decision, stating, “It is undisputed that the Shinnecock Nation’s ancestral domain encompassed essentially the entirety of what is now the Town of Southampton, and it has been established that the presence of the Nation in that domain has been continuous.”
With that starting point, and the strong body of law rejecting questionable land transfers, Berland determined that the State had not met its burden of showing likely success on the merits of its case. He specifically declined to rely on questionable cases that preceded the Nation’s federal acknowledgment.
Berland further determined that the signs “pose no unacceptable safety risk.” He stressed the greater importance of the Nation’s opportunity to produce revenue through economic activities on its own land, unencumbered by State interference, deciding that the balance of interests in this case favored the Tribe.
“The Shinnecock Indian Nation has continued to operate the monument billboard while the lawsuit was pending,” the Council of Trustees says. “Most recently, and at the request of the Town of Southampton, the Billboard has displayed public service announcements relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing safety information, and demonstrating its presence as a benefit, rather than hazard, to the surrounding community.”
Certain portions of the case remain unresolved, but Shinnecock Council of Trustees statement notes, “the Shinnecock Indian Nation is gratified at this important milestone, which confirms our right to conduct economic development within our territory.”