FOXBOROUGH - They seem like a pair of ordinary advertising billboards, competing for the attention of drivers amid the clutter of signs on busy Route 1.
But a disagreement over who controls these hulking signs near Gillette Stadium is part of a bitter dispute that has damaged the 27-year relationship between the town’s government and its largest taxpayer, The Kraft Group, founded by Robert Kraft.
The breakdown in relations comes as Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, is asking Foxborough to consider the most controversial and far-reaching economic development proposal in its history, a $1 billion resort casino.
The Kraft Group insists the billboards are on its land. Foxborough officials say an easement gives the town control.
The town is threatening to settle the dispute by taking the billboards by eminent domain, which the company warns would be “a dangerous position’’ for the town.
“Unfortunately, what I see is the relationship with the Krafts getting worse and worse,’’ said Larry Harrington, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys right now.’’
The dispute has spilled into town politics, setting town officials against each other at a moment when Foxborough is most in need of leadership, as the town considers a proposal from Wynn Resorts to build a gambling resort on land Kraft owns near the stadium.
“That casino is the elephant in the room, without a doubt,’’ said Town Manager Kevin Paicos.
The Krafts presented their side of the billboard dispute over the weekend in a mailing sent to thousands of households. It accused “some town leaders’’ of damaging the relationship with the threat of land takings, an “extraordinary and unprecedented action’’ the company warns would hurt the taxpayers.
“We hope, for the sake of the relationship and for all taxpayers, that the town leaders who are driving this agenda choose a different path,’’ The Kraft Group wrote.
The relationship began in 1985, when Robert Kraft secured an option on land surrounding the old Foxborough Stadium.
More than 25 years later, the relationship is seen two ways by local officials.
Some focus on what they view as Kraft’s hard-nosed negotiating tactics over development and other issues, revealed in recently released minutes from closed meetings of the Board of Selectmen. “If you allow yourself to be supplicant,’’ Paicos warned the board in private session, “this is how they will treat you.’’
Others choose to focus on the roughly $5 million a year The Kraft Group pays in local taxes, fees, and other mitigation, after replacing what was the NFL’s worst stadium with one of the best, and then adding a hotel, movie theater, and mall.
“For a loud minority in town, if Robert Kraft gave them a million dollars they’d complain it wasn’t two million,’’ said Harrington.
The billboards in dispute date back to agreements the town signed with the Kraft organization in 2007, as part of the approval process for Patriot Place, the retail mall next to Gillette Stadium.
Under the deal, the town agreed to ask the Legislature for a dozen more liquor licenses, with the expectation that restaurants planned for the mall would apply for them.
The Kraft organization agreed to dedicate $7.5 million to $10 million to sewer improvements for the town.
And both sides agreed to share revenue on two new billboards, which The Kraft Group built in 2008.
For the past four years, the Kraft organization has managed the marketing of billboard space, and the company and the town have split the advertising revenue. Foxborough has received as much as $190,000 a year from the arrangement, according to The Kraft Group.
But other terms of the original plan were almost immediately forced to change.
Shortly after the agreements were signed in 2007, residents voted against the sewage improvements, eliminating Kraft’s pricey obligation. Town leaders then asked Kraft for equal value in cash payments, and those negotiations expanded to include an extension of the billboard deal, which expires this spring, town officials said.
During those talks, town officials came to believe that management of the billboards should go out to bid, because it is a contract involving a public entity.
“This is not a choice,’’ Selectwoman Lorraine Brue said. “The deal has to go out to bid.’’
The Kraft Group strenuously disagrees with this assessment and maintains the deal can be extended through negotiations.
The town proceeded nevertheless, but the first solicitation turned up no bids. It will go out to bid again, said Paicos.
“Things were already a little tense because of the casino but when the [bid solicitation] went out, the Kraft organization was very, very upset,’’ said Paicos.
The Kraft Group has sent multiple letters to town officials saying the bid process is fatally flawed because the billboards are on its private property.
“Common sense will tell you that’s land we own,’’ said Dan Krantz, director of site development for The Kraft Group. “We have a top-flight Boston legal firm that will tell you it’s land we own, and I have a survey in hand that says it is land we own.’’
Kraft officials tried to assert their ownership to the Board of Selectmen at an open meeting on March 13. But Paicos objected and accused them of trying to use the forum to “subvert a public bidding process’’ and scare off potential bidders.
Rather than sorting out the easement dispute in court, officials will ask voters at the May Town Meeting to consider settling the matter by eminent domain, Paicos said.
Krantz warned that the company would be entitled by law to fair compensation in a land taking, which he said would include the value of future advertising.
“I don’t know how you put a number on that,’’ he said. “It could be large. Very large.’’
The easy solution, said Paicos, is for the Kraft organization to just win the bid.
“Then all this goes away,’’ he said. “There’s no eminent domain and we go hand-in-hand into the sunset as full business partners, as we have been.’’