Eminent Domain to Benefit Slots: Buffalo (NY) Pundit, 12/12/05

By Jack Davis

Our ne’er-do-well governor and our inept state legislature, with its typical noblesse-oblige way of dealing with Western and Upstate New York, decided that the best thing in the whole wide world to revitalize our moribund economy would be casinos. Indian casinos.

The New York State constitution prohibits Vegas-style gambling (although, apparently somehow Keno, Lotto, MegaMillions, Racetracks, OTB, and video racinos are hunky-dory). Federal law, however, trumps State Law, so we can’t prohibit a federally recognized Indian tribe from setting up casinos pursuant to a compact with the State.

Pataki executed such a compact with the Senecas, granting them the exclusive right to operate casinos in WNY [Western New York]. Specifically, three of them, only one of which is actually located on an Indian Reservation. The other two - one in Niagara Falls, and the other in Buffalo - are sited on little exclaves. Little portions of New York State territory have been carved out and ceded to the sovereign Indian nation, which isn’t technically part of New York.

In return, the State gets 25% of the slot revenues from the casinos. Not the tables, not anything but slots. The State is then supposed to give about 25% of its share to the host municipality.

Buffalo’s casino will be in the Cobblestone District. That’s a whole separate story.

Niagara Falls’ casino was located in the old, leaky Convention Center. It’s the place to go to see septuagenarians smoke cigarettes in a public indoor setting. If you miss walking out of a place stinking like a carton of Lucky’s, this is your go-to place. If you can’t get enough of tan Buicks making right turns at 2 mph, get thyself to the Falls.

Snark, snark, snark, right? Well, until now probably most people in WNY haven’t really given a shit about the casinos. They see them as not the greatest thing, but at best a necessary evil to get some jobs going and some money in local coffers.

Here’s something to piss off even the most die-hard Sandy Beach caller: Eminent Domain.

We all remember the Kelo v. New London SCOTUS decision from earlier this year, which permits governments to take private property under eminent domain and then sell it to a preferred developer for newer, more lucrative private development. Lots of people were extremely upset about that decision. Since then, legislatures across the country have acted to counterbalance Kelo’s ruling.

Now, we have the State of New York taking private property in Niagara Falls by eminent domain and then ceding it to a foreign sovereign nation for casino development.

Patricia Van Egmond’s Fifth Street home has been in her family since 1937. It breaks her heart to imagine a bulldozer knocking it down to make room so a casino can expand.

Van Egmond, 71, opposes a controversial plan by New York State to force property owners to sell 26 acres of Niagara Falls land for use by the Seneca Nation of Indians.

The land - including homes, a hotel, restaurants and a multimillion-dollar water park - would be purchased by the state and turned over to the Senecas.

The Senecas plan to tear it all down and build at least one new hotel, parking facilities and other amenities for their Seneca Niagara Casino. One hotel owner, facing the state’s threat, sold his hotel to the Senecas last week.

The state casino agreement with the Seneca Nation has different provisions for Buffalo, so most people dismiss the idea of a similar situation occurring as the Senecas build a casino in the Cobblestone District.

But in Niagara Falls, the state said it intends to use eminent-domain powers to obtain property for the Senecas. Eminent domain refers to the constitutional power of government to force people to sell their property for use in projects that benefit the public.

According to several experts, the Niagara Falls case is extremely rare - possibly the first time in the United States that a government has used eminent domain to obtain land for a Native American casino.

This makes the facts in Kelo look downright benign by comparison. In that case, the public benefit was more taxes from new waterfront condos. In this case, the public benefit is cash from slot machines. (Assuming the taken property would actually be used for a casino purpose that would benefit the State).

Buffalo Pundit: http://buffalopundit.wnymedia.net