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Casino ruling could eliminate the perks

Patrons of the Seneca Niagara Casino can smoke without inhibition.

They also can eat and drink tax free.

But those same perks and privileges -- key ingredients in the casino's success -- might not be available in Buffalo, regardless of what's built on the downtown casino site.

That's because the Seneca Nation stands to lose more than just the legal right to gamble as part of a recent federal court ruling.

"Our position is any responsibility or obligation that landowners have under the law would apply to them and their land," said Joseph M. Finnerty, lead attorney for the anti-casino groups.

The one exception, Finnerty said, is property taxes.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny casts new doubt on the status of the downtown land acquired by the Senecas and could have consequences beyond the issue of gambling.

Anti-casino lawyers claim the ruling opens the nation to a whole array of local, state and federal regulations, from zoning laws to smoking prohibitions to sales taxes.

"Until it's declared Indian land, zoning laws, building restrictions and other state and local regulations apply," Erie County Attorney Laurence K. Rubin said.

City officials are confident the land will eventually be classified "Indian land" and that any suggestion to the contrary represents a "big if."

Privately, both critics and supporters wonder if the Senecas would
build anything at the site in the event gambling is out of the question.

"At this point, I'm waiting for the Indian Gaming Commission," said Alisa Lukasiewicz, city corporation counsel. "Until we get their opinion, we're in no position to speculate."

No one doubts the Senecas' ownership of the nine acres at Michigan Avenue and Perry Street. At question is the status of the property and, more specifically, whether it can now be classified Indian land.

Skretny ruled that a federal agency, the National Indian Gaming Commission, improperly granted the Senecas a gambling license in 2002 and ordered the agency to reconsider its decision.

In his ruling, Skretny said the commission acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner. He also said the commission's chairman failed to adequately examine whether the land can be legally considered "Indian lands."

"It does not have sovereign status," Finnerty maintains. "It does not have Indian country status, and it does not have Indian land status."

Skretny's ruling represents a setback for the Senecas, who had planned to open a temporary casino downtown in April. They hope the commission will issue a new decision before then and expressed confidence last week that the project will move forward.

Meanwhile, the early stages of construction on the $125 million casino project continue.

"We understand that further federal review is forthcoming," Seneca President Maurice A. John said in a statement.

"We are confident that the National Indian Gaming Commission will reach the same conclusion that the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice have already reached that, as a result of how they were acquired, the lands in question are indeed Seneca lands again."

Just how long it will take the gaming commission to act is unclear. One commissioner indicated that a decision is likely to take months but left the door open to an expedited decision.


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