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Clarify this agreement

Published 7:05pm Saturday, January 12, 2013

What does it mean to own something?

That’s the question Suffolk City Council members must consider on Wednesday, when they meet during a work session at 4 p.m. to consider why a development agreement remains unsigned two years after it was presented to the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association.

The city proposes transferring about 70 acres to the tribe to be developed as a replica of a 16th-century Nansemond Indian village that would be operated as a museum and tourist attraction called Mattanock Town. Despite the fact that members of the tribe have long sought the property for this use, they have — under the guidance of the lawyers volunteering on their behalf — declined to sign the agreement.

What’s under dispute is who will actually own the property, and it’s a question that should be satisfactorily answered before anyone signs anything.

Suffolk officials contend the agreement clearly conveys the property to the Nansemonds, and one particular clause in the agreement seems to bolster the case: “NITA is and shall have exclusive ownership and possession of the Property….” That clause is part of a paragraph absolving the city of any liability from injury or damages to those working on or visiting the property.

Tribal leaders and their attorneys, however, point to a variety of other clauses and paragraphs that seem to give the city significant control over the property long after any transfer.

For example, Suffolk could take the property back if Mattanock Town were not built within five years of transferring the property or if the city were dissatisfied with the tribe’s repair and maintenance of facilities built there. The tribe’s plans for Mattanock Town would all have to be approved by the city in advance — outside of the regular permit processes that apply — and any changes to those plans or future additions or alterations would require similar approval from Suffolk’s city administration. And the tribe would have to make the property available for city functions without charge.

The proposed agreement rightly requires the Nansemond Tribe to pay the costs of building and operating Mattanock Town on its own, but then it treats the tribe as mere operators of a city concession, rather than true property owners. Considering that the property was once at the center of their tribal lands, the Nansemond Indians deserve better treatment than that.

Suffolk City Council has the opportunity on Wednesday to show firm support for the Nansemond Indian Tribe’s plans for Mattanock Town. Directing its staff to rewrite the proposed development agreement to make it clear that owning the property includes being in control of it would be an appropriate way to show that support.

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