A Mohegan Sun casino proposal at Suffolk Downs appears closer to joining the competition for the Greater Boston resort casino license, after a majority of the state gambling commission signaled Tuesday that they would accept such a bid on the track’s property in Revere.
Allowing the Connecticut gambling company to pursue a new proposal at a new site on the Suffolk Downs property would preserve a sense of competition for the state’s most lucrative gambling license, while enraging opponents who beat back a casino at the track in East Boston in a Nov. 5 vote. It could also open the commission to a court challenge, because the project no longer resembles the proposal that was before Revere residents when they voted to support the bid on the same day.
Both votes were taken on the original proposal by Suffolk Downs, which straddles the city line, to build a casino on a portion of land that lies entirely within East Boston. Mohegan Sun was not involved in that proposal.
Officials from Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun maintain they have secured a valid referendum vote on a straightforward “land-use question” to permit casino gambling in Revere and a valid agreement with Revere city officials to host a casino. The host agreement was negotiated before the vote and will be revised to increase the benefits to the city to reflect the new circumstances, according to Suffolk Downs.
The gambling commission, which usually makes decisions through broad consensus, seemed uncomfortable Tuesday discussing an issue on which the members appeared split. The debate focused on the question of whether Revere’s Nov. 5 vote constitutes a legal endorsement of the new project.
One commissioner, James McHugh, a former appeals court judge, said he is troubled by the legal issues around the new proposal, noting the state’s requirement that each casino project win the endorsement of its host community in a referendum before it may be considered for a license.
“It seems to me this proposal is so different in so many dimensions . . . it stretches the concept of a knowing community vote past recognition,” he said.
There is not enough time under current deadlines for a new vote, but McHugh hinted Tuesday at extending the deadline to permit a new vote in Revere.
“I think it’s always helpful to plant seeds and see what grows,” McHugh said after the meeting, declining to comment further on the possibility of a new vote.
Casino opponents, who attended Tuesday’s meeting but said they were not invited to speak, did not rule out a lawsuit if the commission permits Mohegan Sun to apply for a license in Revere without a new vote.
“We’re going to avail ourselves to every option,” said Celeste Myers, a leader of the group No Eastie Casino. She said the group “would not be thrilled” with a new vote, but it would be fairer than allowing a new proposal to go forward without facing a campaign.
Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere told commissioners Tuesday that his community remains enthusiastic about a Suffolk Downs casino and urged the members to “allow us to move forward and bring this first class, world class” casino to Revere.
Whether to accept a Boston-area bid from Mohegan Sun announced by Suffolk Downs last week will be among the most consequential decisions to date for the five-member commission created in 2012. It put off a decisive vote on the proposal until next week.
Suffolk Downs’s original proposal called for two hotels, a casino, spa, and other amenities on the East Boston side of the city line passing through the roughly 163-acre track property. The thoroughbred racetrack would have been part of the development, and, under state law, Suffolk Downs would have been obligated to continue offering horse racing.
Under the new proposal planned entirely on the Revere side of the property, Suffolk Downs would be a landlord, not a casino owner. Plans call for Mohegan Sun to build and own the casino on land leased from Suffolk Downs, independent of the track.
The new arrangement would apparently no longer require Suffolk Downs to continue horse racing, through track officials have pledged to keep racing.
Stephen Crosby, the commission chairman, who made it clear he supports Rizzo’s position, said he sees the issue less as a legal argument and more of a public policy debate. “I can’t see a right reason, a compelling public policy reason . . . to deny the people of Revere the opportunity to play out the string on this,” Crosby said.
Commissioners Gayle Cameron and Enrique Zuniga also seemed to lean in favor of allowing the project to go forward.
Cameron noted that the commission had not received an outpouring of complaints from Revere residents about the possibility of permitting the new development to compete for a license. Zuniga said he disagreed that the new casino plans at Suffolk Downs are fundamentally different than the earlier version.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins was less clear about his position, though he said a community vote to authorize a casino is more than a simple land-use question.
If Mohegan Sun is allowed to submit a proposal, the project would compete with a Wynn Resorts casino plan in Everett.Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.