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TOWN BOARD CALLS UPON ASSEMBLY, U.S. OFFICIALS TO REJECT CASINO PACT

The Grand Island Town Board on Wednesday asked the Assembly and federal officials to deny approval of a gambling compact until it's linked to the Seneca Nation of Indians' land claim.

The resolution, approved 5-0 at a special Town Board meeting, largely is symbolic. But Town Board members hope to get the attention of Gov. George E. Pataki and Assembly members.

They say the agreement reached by Pataki and Seneca negotiators that would bring casinos to Niagara Falls and downtown Buffalo sacrifices the interests of Grand Island residents.

"I believe we've been sold out on this compact," Councilman Kevin M. Rustowicz said. "I hope this message is sent loud and clear to the governor's office."

Since 1992, the town and the state have been fighting a lawsuit brought by the Senecas, who claim to own Grand Island and several smaller islands in the Niagara River.

Town officials say the threat of a victory by the Senecas in court has stymied construction and economic growth.

The case is in U.S. District Court, with local officials expecting a ruling from Judge Richard J. Arcara on preliminary motions in the coming weeks.

The Justice Department in January agreed not to hold individual landowners on the island liable in the land claim. But department lawyers have not yet submitted the necessary paperwork with the court.

Pataki, in a letter mailed to island homeowners this week, assured residents that no one on Grand Island would lose his or her home or business or have to pay money as part of the claim.

The governor has promised to introduce legislation outlining this protection.

But town leaders said this assurance isn't enough.

Councilman Michael E. Heftka, who introduced the resolution, said the state wasted a prime opportunity to end the land claim when negotiating with the Senecas over the casinos.

"This gaming compact diminishes the bargaining position of New York State with regard to the land claim while at the same time providing the Seneca Nation with an opportunity for tremendous economic growth," the resolution reads in part.

The resolution states the town is opposed to approval of the gambling compact until the land claim is withdrawn, dismissed or resolved.

The State Senate approved the compact last week. But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, this week vowed the Assembly would not approve the agreement until several issues, including the land claim, are resolved.

At Wednesday's meeting, Councilwoman Mary S. Cooke said she decided to support the resolution after the town's attorneys signed off on it and some wording was changed.

Supervisor Peter A. McMahon said staff in the governor's office and in the offices of U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, had agreed to meetings with Grand Island officials on the casino deal.

The town is seeking commitments from its representatives in Washington that the federal government will remove individual homeowners from the suit.

"As far as I know, everybody's on board and everybody knows what we'd like to accomplish with this series of meetings," McMahon said.

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