The Shawnee Tribe has no right to the defunct Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto, a federal judge in Kansas City, Kan., ruled Wednesday.
Judge Thomas VanBebber said the tribe gave up its claim to the land in an 1854 treaty with the U.S. government.
"The plain language and structure of the 1854 Treaty indicate an intent to transfer all of the Shawnee reservation to the United States, effectively terminating the reservation," VanBebber wrote in his ruling.
Don Jarrett, chief counsel for Johnson County government, said the ruling would help clear the way for development of the 9,065-acre plant.
"It certainly removes one big issue," Jarrett said.
Scott Beeler, an Overland Park attorney representing the tribe, said he was "disappointed" by the ruling and that he would appeal.
"We respectfully disagree with the conclusion of the court that the Shawnee Tribe has at any time terminated its reservation," Beeler said.
The federal government in 1998 announced its intention to dispose of the property because the plant had closed.
The tribe filed the suit in 2002, claiming it was entitled to the site near De Soto. The tribe argues that treaties signed in 1825, 1831 and 1854 said that if the federal government chose to dispose of the site, the tribe had the authority to take it back.
Both sides agree on this much: Under the 1825 treaty, the Shawnee Tribe gave up land in Missouri in exchange for 1.6 million acres of land that included all of what now are Johnson and Douglas counties in Kansas. Members of the Shawnee Tribe in Ohio gave up their land in 1831 in exchange for 100,000 acres within the Kansas reservation.
But the sides disagree on how much land the Shawnee gave to the U.S. government under the 1854 treaty.
The U.S. government said it purchased all 1.6 million acres from the Shawnee but gave tribal members a "right of first refusal" on land within 200,000 acres that included part of the Sunflower site. Beeler said the 200,000 acres was intended as a reservation for the tribe.
VanBebber agreed with the government, citing 150-year-old documents he said proved that Congress intended -- and the Shawnee Tribe agreed -- to end the reservation.
"After examining the plain language of the 1854 Treaty, the court determines that Congress intended to terminate the Shawnee reservation when it ratified the treaty," VanBebber wrote.
In January, the Johnson County Commission designated Kessinger/Hunter, a Kansas City firm, as its preferred developer of the site. The company has proposed a mix of commercial, residential and park uses for the site where bomb propellants were manufactured from 1942 to 1989.
Officials say that once the county and company work out the details, Johnson County will negotiate on behalf of the firm to buy the site from the federal government. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has said she wouldn't approve the transfer, however, unless developers included a life sciences research park. Kessinger/Hunter and Johnson County officials say that is part of the plan.
Jarrett said Wednesday that negotiations with Kessinger/Hunter were going smoothly.
"They are in progress, moving relatively well," Jarrett said. "I believe we're on schedule to get preliminary agreements in place in the May-June time frame."