Whether the federal courts have jurisdiction over the Seneca Nation of Indians may be the key to a court battle being waged by opponents of proposed lease renewals for much of the land in Salamanca.
Jennifer Coleman, the lawyer for opponents of the lease plan, the Salamanca Coalition of United Taxpayers (SCOUT), made the assessment during a meeting of the group Thursday night.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara in Buffalo reserved decision on SCOUT's bid for a temporary restraining order barring the Salamanca Lease Authority from implementing 40-year leases with 40-year renewal options it negotiated with the Senecas.
He also reserved decision on a request for a second order that would bar the Senecas from withdrawing renewal offers to leaseholders who have revoked negotiating authority from the Lease Authority.
"Jurisdiction is the issue to be decided first," said Ms. Coleman, of the Buffalo law firm of Damon & Morey. "The court must decide whether it has jurisdiction over the Senecas, which claim they are a sovereign nation."
Arcara adjourned the matter to Dec. 20 and asked all parties to file briefs on the jurisdictional issue in response to the action brought by SCOUT.
Ms. Coleman said she believes the court will issue a ruling by mid-January. "The judge realizes your homes are at stake," she said.
Members of SCOUT have filed a class-action suit against the proposed agreement.
They claim they have a right to renew their expiring 99-year leases for another 99 years. Under the settlement negotiated by the lease authority the Senecas are asking $800,00 for the first year's rent.
In a courtroom development, the Senecas' attorney, Douglas Endreson, said the Nation will not treat notices sent by lessees revoking the negotiating power of the Lease Authority as rejections of offered lease renewals except for the four individuals who brought the suit. Those four have now apparently lost their option to renew.
Thursday night, Ms. Coleman said the priority item in the lawsuit is 99-year renewals for the 3,300 leases.
"The more numbers we have the better off we are as a voice in the community and not a fringe group," said Ms. Coleman, who urged SCOUT members to get their neighbors to join the group. Fewer than 50 percent of the lessees have paid $100 or more to join.
Salamanca is the only city in the United States on land leased from an Indian tribe. City negotiators agreed last spring on the new lease that will pay the Senecas at least $800,000 a year, compared with $57,000 a year under the current lease.
The new lease also includes a onetime payment of $60 million to compensate the Senecas for the small payments received under the agreement that expires in February. Many residents have been paying $5 a year or less.
In a related development, a new group has formed in opposition to the proposed agree ment.
A group of Senecas, the Seneca Coalition Against Lease Proposal, wants the residents who lease land from the Senecas to move out next February when their leases expire rather than remain there under the new lease agreement.
"At this point, we are campaigning to halt any further action on the proposed lease," said Corine Martin, speaking for the group.
"SCALP proposes that the current lease be allowed to expire and the residents of the city of Salamanca move off the land, and it can return to the Seneca Indians."
SCALP is just beginning to organize and no estimate fo the group's size is available.
As a result of SCOUT's opposition to the proposed lease and its push for an extension of the expiring leases, SCALP is calling for the proposal to be withdrawn and the property returned to the Seneca Nation.
"Neither the Salamanca residents nor the Seneca Nation residents were afforded proper input into this proposal," said a flyer, which was distributed at Thursday's federal court hearing by SCALP members from the Allegany and Cattaraugus reservations.
"SCOUT is not willing to make proposed lease payments. SCALP has the answer to this dilemma. SCALP proposes that the lease proposal be negated, causing the leases to expire, at which point the residents of the City of Salamanca can vacate the land."
News Staff Reporter Agnes Palazzetti contributed to this story.