Despite the concerns of Town of Collins and state officials, the federal government has allowed the Seneca Nation of Indians to take nearly 55 acres it purchased in southern Erie County off the tax rolls, essentially adding it to the tribe's Cattaraugus Reservation.
Seneca officials confirmed this week that the Department of the Interior has allowed the tribe to take the land, a former farm, into what's called "restricted fee status." The Senecas hope to build a planned community, including up to 100 homes and a park, on the Collins site.
The tribe also would consider making similar purchases to add land to its 22,000-acre Cattaraugus Reservation, said Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter.
"We have an obligation to serve our people and to provide housing, among other things," Porter said. "Finding ways in which we can expand our territory and make use of it for our people -- I hope not just my administration, but future administrations will pursue that."
The Senecas purchased the land for $550,000 in 2008 but only last year asked the Department of the Interior to place it in restricted fee status.
That came as a disappointment to the Town of Collins, because a major property was removed from the tax rolls.
Town Supervisor David Tessmer said he was concerned that the purchase would not be the Senecas' last. "We share an extensive boundary with the Cattaraugus Reservation, so obviously they could be setting some kind of precedent here," he said.
Tessmer said the town was also concerned that the property the Senecas purchased is adjacent to the aquifer supplying the town with water and that the Seneca development might adversely affect the town's water supply.
The town voiced those concerns in a January letter to the Department of the Interior, but it may have already been too late, given that a 30-day comment period had already passed.
The state offered its views during that comment period, but the Department of the Interior allowed the Senecas to take the property off the tax rolls despite the state's concerns.
The state questioned whether the Senecas had the right to take the property off the tax rolls without a more thorough review, but the Senecas contended they could do so under the Seneca Nation Settlement Act, the 1990 federal legislation that renewed leases in the Seneca-owned City of Salamanca.
That legislation granted the Senecas $30 million to buy land near its reservations and get it placed into restricted fee status with far less federal review than the nation would otherwise have to endure.
In a letter last November to Larry Echo Hawk, then the assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior, a lawyer for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo argued that the Senecas may not have been able to use that $30 million pot for the land purchase because the money might be gone.
A federal audit, "according to sources, found [Seneca Nation Settlement] Act funds fully depleted," wrote Robert Williams, assistant counsel in the governor's office.
That audit has never been made public. Respect for the Seneca Nation's sovereignty has prevented the release of the details of such federal reviews of Seneca finances over the years.
But Porter discounted the audit.
"That was never a report that was accepted by the government," he said. "That was the opinion of one administrator."
Williams asked Echo Hawk to delay approval of moving the land into restricted fee status until after state and local governments had seen the audit of Seneca Nation Settlement Act funds.
But under that law, Seneca land purchases automatically go into restricted fee status 60 days after they are made unless the Department of the Interior stops the move, which the agency did not do.
Porter declined to say how much of the $30 million the tribe has left, but he added: "We have plenty to engage in this kind of purpose."
He said the tribe needed to buy off-reservation land for housing because most land parcels on its reservation are owned by individuals and not available for a large-scale housing development.
"We have hundreds of units of demand for housing for our people, and so this is going to be a great way for us to get going on that," he said.