IRVING – A couple of hours after the Seneca Nation announced that it was suing New York State over the State Thruway section that runs through the Senecas' Cattaraugus Territory, a yellow bulldozer was spotted clearing piles of dirt on the property of the Big Indian Smoke Shop, about 60 feet away from a westbound Thruway lane.
To some observers, it appears that Eric White, the owner of Big Indian, may be building an unauthorized exit lane from the Thruway to his travel plaza, where truckers and other motorists can buy cheap gasoline, bargain-rate cigarettes and other products.
White, a longtime Seneca Nation businessman, declined to discuss his plans with The Buffalo News. So did several of his employees.
White is "simply exploring his options right now," said his attorney, Paul J. Cambria, when asked if White is building his own Thruway exit ramp.
"We've never said exactly what he is or isn't doing," Cambria said. "Right now, he is exploring his ability to build a service area that could possibly connect to the Thruway. We're looking at all the applicable laws and what he is permitted to do."
Cambria added that, so far in his legal research, he's found no law that would prohibit White from building a ramp connecting the Thruway to White's smoke shop and gasoline pumps.
Cambria said a new travel plaza that could be easily accessed by motorists would be "fantastic" for travelers.
"It would be great for consumers, no doubt, with an opportunity to buy cheaper gas," Cambria said.
On Thursday, White's gas pumps at the Big Indian Smoke Shop were advertising regular gasoline for $2.28 a gallon. Eleven miles away, at the state-owned Angola Service Area on the Thruway, gasoline was selling for $2.73 a gallon – 45 cents more expensive.
Bulldozers and other heavy equipment have been moving dirt on White's property off Milestrip Road and adjacent to the Thruway for weeks, clearing an area roughly the size of a football field. That work was continuing Thursday when a Buffalo News reporter drove to the Seneca territory to interview Senecas about a long-standing dispute between the tribe and the state over Thruway access rights.
The Senecas sued New York in federal court on Thursday, accusing the state of failing to get required permission from the federal government when it built 2.7 miles of Thruway through Seneca Nation land in the 1950s. A State Thruway spokesman, Jonathan Dougherty, denied any wrongdoing by the state.
“We can’t comment on pending litigation, but it’s well established that the Seneca Nation granted an easement for the Thruway in 1954. We have defended that position in the past and will continue to do so going forward," Dougherty said.
Thruway Authority officials are aware of – and concerned about – White's construction project, Dougherty indicated. He said the state prohibits anyone from building his or her own exit or entrance ramp to the Thruway, even if the ramp is on the individual's own property.
“The safety of motorists along the Thruway is paramount. Adjacent property owners are simply not allowed to build on and off ramps from the New York State Thruway as they please," Dougherty told The News.
White has not applied to the state for permission to build a ramp, nor has any permission been granted to him, Dougherty said.
He added Thruway Authority safety inspectors have been checking the site "to ensure the work does not interfere with the operation of the Thruway.”
Seneca Nation officials are also aware of White's project.
In response to questions from The News, the Seneca Nation said it is "aware of the activity being undertaken by an individual on the Cattaraugus Territory," and the nation has "no role whatsoever in what is taking place."
"Although we know the reason for his actions, we look for a safe resolution addressing this situation," the Nation said.
White did not return calls from The News seeking his comment, and his assistant, Dwayne Clark, said he could not comment on White's plans.
White is also involved in a $2.4 million cigarette tax dispute with the state, but Cambria insisted that there is "absolutely no connection" between White's project and the tax dispute.
According to court records, the state is trying to collect $2.4 million in fines from White. The fines – which White claims are unwarranted – stem from allegations that he sold thousands of untaxed cigarettes in 2012. An administrative law judge ruled against White last month, saying he owes the money, but Cambria said further legal arguments are scheduled in an appeals court for April 25.
White's dispute with the state and his mysterious construction project are part of a bigger story – the escalating battles between the Senecas and the state over taxation, casino revenues and legal issues surrounding the Thruway.
Some Senecas have strong feelings about these disputes.
Seneca Nation President Todd Gates accused the state of engaging in "illegal trespass" on Seneca lands since the Thruway stretch was built in the 1950s. Gates said that, in his view, the state now owes the Senecas "more than $700 million" for cars and trucks that have used the Thruway to pass through Seneca lands.
"I think we should shut down the Thruway if the state is not willing to sit down with us, appoint a task force from the governor and have meaningful discussions about all these issues," said J.C. Seneca, a businessman who sells gasoline and cigarettes and ran unsuccessfully for president against Gates in the tribe's 2016 election. "Through our whole history, there has been one state intrusion after another on Seneca land. They owe us millions upon millions of dollars. If they aren't willing to discuss these issues, we should shut down the Thruway."
Seneca said his statement was not meant as a criticism of Seneca Nation leaders. "I'm criticizing New York State leaders," he said.
The stretch of Thruway crossing the Seneca Nation is pocked by potholes and cracks, and in far worse shape than the Thruway stretches just east and just west of it. At least two "Rough Road” signs are posted there, and signs advise motorists to observe speed limit signs of 55 mph and 45 mph in several locations.
J.C. Seneca said he has noticed the "really bad" road conditions, for which he blames the Thruway Authority. He said the stretch of Thruway does not appear to have been repaved in many years.
“The Authority is working toward an agreement with the Seneca Nation to move ahead with a contract to begin rehabilitation of the roadway in the Seneca Nation territory,” Thruway Authority spokesman Dougherty said.
He said the authority does "basic road maintenance" and did some "wheel path repaving" in May 2016. Dougherty said he did not know when the Seneca Nation stretch of road was last reconstructed.
According to the Seneca Nation's website, any contractor who wishes to do paving or construction work on Seneca Nation land must observe the Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance, which requires "51 percent" of the contractor's employees to be "qualified natives."
Dougherty would not comment when asked if this requirement has in any way limited the state's ability to do repaving or reconstruction work on Seneca land.