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The U.S. Justice Department did the right thing - finally - in dropping individual landowners on Grand Island from the Seneca Nation land-claim lawsuit. The federal government now will attempt to get compensation only from New York State.

The land-claim case on Grand Island challenges the way in which the state acquired Native American lands 185 years ago. Native Americans say the acquisition violated a 1790 act of Congress.

Individual landowners never should have been part of the lawsuit. And although the Seneca Nation of Indians and the Tonawanda Band of Senecas still include the landowners in their suit, it has to be reassuring to landowners that their government won't be seeking damages from them. Although everyone in the case acknowledged that it was extremely unlikely that anyone would lose his land, the suit unnecessarily put Grand Island landowners under a cloud, and had a chilling effect on the real estate market.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer has been a steadfast supporter of Grand Island landowners in this case. He got the Justice Department to forego an appeal in its Oneida land-claim suit after a court ruling that removed landowners from that case.

Individual landowners on Grand Island can now see a light at the end of the tunnel. And it's been a long, dark walk. Property values have plummetted and businesses have avoided the area as if it contained an island of lepers. Grand Island residents should be able to breathe easier and get on with the business of rebuilding the island's image and their property values.

New York State, which will now be the sole target of the lawsuit, will now have to concern itself with the possibility of a large damages award if it loses in court. It's also important to note that the Justice Department did not take Erie County and the Town of Grand Island out of the case.

So, while individual landowners rejoice, state officials must brace themselves for what may amount to a huge payout if it loses in court.

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