A top regulator in the Baker administration is accusing the MBTA of improperly rushing through the sale of T land that Wynn Resorts wants to use for the entrance to the $1.7 billion casino complex it plans to build in Everett.
In an e-mail to representatives of the T and Wynn, Deirdre Buckley, director of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that last month’s $6 million sale of 1.75 acres violated state regulations. The T, Buckley wrote, should have waited for her agency to conduct its review of traffic and other environmental issues related to the casino project before completing the land sale.
A spokesman for Wynn, Michael Weaver, on Wednesday downplayed the impact the dispute would have on the overall construction process or the timing of the review by Buckley’s agency, which is in its final stages. In a statement, Weaver called it a technical matter involving state agencies that he expects to be resolved shortly.
It is highly unusual for a state official to criticize another agency within the same administration in this way.
In the March 23 e-mail, Buckley said she and Matthew A. Beaton, Baker’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, will take the complaint into consideration as they complete the environmental review of Wynn’s casino plans.
Wynn is represented in this part of the state review by R.J. Lyman, an adviser at ML Strategies who once oversaw environmental reviews for the state in governor William Weld’s administration.
Weld now works with Lyman at ML Strategies, a subsidiary of the law firm Mintz Levin, and represented Wynn before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Representatives of the Baker administration declined to specify how they will address the situation.
“The administration is working on a resolution that will make sure the transaction appropriately addresses any issues raised by MEPA,” or the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, said Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes in a statement.
Meanwhile, a top state official responsible for land sales abruptly lost his job just days after Buckley sent the e-mail objecting to the sale.
Jeffrey Simon, appointed by governor Deval Patrick in 2013 as assistant secretary for real estate at MassDOT, left the agency Friday. Verseckes said Simon’s departure was “part of the normal course of transition” between administrations. Baker took office in January.
Gregory Sullivan, research director at the fiscally conservative Pioneer Institute, said Baker’s environmental officials deserve credit for criticizing the MBTA and fighting to enforce the law:
“These e-mails indicate that the MBTA knew that the sale of land prior to completion of the traffic environmental review was illegal.”
Boston’s city limits extend like a finger along Route 99 on the Everett side of the Mystic River, and the existing entrance for Wynn’s 32-acre property crosses the city line.
‘On behalf of the City of Revere . . . I am going to call for a full investigation into this transaction.’ --Dan Rizzo, mayor of Revere
With the purchase of the 1.75 acres from the MBTA, Wynn would be able to build a road into the site that doesn’t cross into Boston, giving city officials far less power over the site’s future.
Once T officials sold the land to Wynn, Sullivan said, state regulators also lost a considerable amount of leverage, specifically in controlling casino-related traffic. “They took away the hammer from the process,” he said.
The concession by a Baker aide that the land sale was mishandled represents a victory for Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere, who has railed against the T’s deal with Wynn for months. Among other things, Rizzo says the bidding process for the land was improperly handled and that Wynn was given an inside track.
“The MEPA office has now confirmed that the land deal between Wynn and the MBTA was illegal,” Rizzo said in a prepared statement on Wednesday. “This is just another outrage and red flag in a disturbing and continuing pattern with the Gaming Commission and the prior administration bending the rules to accommodate Wynn.
“On behalf of the City of Revere, which has been harmed grievously in this process, I am going to call for a full investigation into this transaction.”
Rizzo was on the losing side of the Greater Boston casino sweepstakes: The Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved Wynn’s Everett project in September over a competing proposal that Mohegan Sun would have developed at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Revere.
That decision subsequently sparked lawsuits against the commission by the cities of Revere, Boston, and Somerville.
In Boston’s suit, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration argued the city deserves host community status in negotiations with Wynn — status that gives voters an opportunity to block a casino — because much of the facility’s traffic would flow through Boston.
A spokeswoman for the casino commission said that officials there were unable to speculate about what the land issue means for the Wynn project.
The sale of the MBTA’s land, part of a bus repair facility known as the Everett Shops, already has a complex history.
Wynn’s negotiations with DOT officials started at least two years ago. With just weeks to go before the gaming commission’s September 2014 vote on awarding the Boston-area casino license, Wynn reached an agreement with T officials to buy two acres spread over three parcels at different corners of the repair facility for $6 million. The T then sought alternative bidders willing to top that price. No other bidder emerged.
Before the Wynn sale was completed, the sizse of the transaction was scaled back from 2.02 acres to 1.75 acres. The $6 million price remained the same.
Wynn issued a news release on March 3 saying that it had completed the deal and calling it an important step toward building a casino that could open by early 2018.
“The process of building Wynn Everett is moving forward exactly as planned,” Robert DeSalvio, president of Wynn Everett, said in the statement at the time.
“After an extended period of public process and due diligence, we’re checking off the boxes and hitting the milestones we need to hit.”