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Tewksbury

Slots plan riles Andover next door

A plan for a slot machine parlor in Tewksbury (artist’s rendering).

Penn National

A plan for a slot machine parlor in Tewksbury (artist’s rendering).

The $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino proposed for 30 acres of woods in Tewksbury has the look of a New England ski lodge.

A rendering released last week by Penn National Gaming shows the stone building softly lit and topped with a cupola, standing amid towering trees. It would include 1,250 slot machines, a sports bar named for former Boston College and NFL star Doug Flutie, and other amenities.

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“We are extremely proud of the design and feel it is a great fit for the town of Tewksbury and the Merrimack Valley,” said Jeff Morris, director of public affairs at Penn National, who is heading the company’s outreach in Tewksbury.

But just a few hundred feet across the border in Andover, a slots parlor is the last thing resident Holly Gilmartin wants to see built behind her home on Jordyn Lane, which abuts the Tewksbury property.

“It’s my house,” Gilmartin said at a public forum with state gambling officials that drew about 100 Andover residents to the town library on Tuesday.

Gilmartin said she thinks the host agreement signed recently between Penn National and the town of Tewksbury contains a “back door clause” for the project to expand.

“This is, potentially in two years, a full-blown casino, which scares the hell out of me,” she said.

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Scott Wilson, chairman of the Tewksbury Board of Selectmen, disputed Gilmartin’s assertion that the host community agreement includes language to allow a future expansion.

“There is no back door clause,” Wilson said in an interview Thursday. “Our agreement addresses only a slot parlor. Any license for a casino would have to be decided by the gaming commission.”

Wilson said he has reached out to Andover officials to discuss areas of common concern, such as traffic on Route 133.

“We are not going to just dump this on Andover,” Wilson said. “We are building a relationship with Penn National, and I certainly hope they would listen when we say to them ‘What are you going to do to address traffic and Andover’s other concerns.’ ”

Sue Westaway, another Andover resident, questioned the tight timeline.

“I find it quite strange that this process is so abbreviated,” said Westaway, whose home on Larchmont Circle is about a mile from the site. “It seems like it’s been timed for summertime, when no one is around.”

As Tewksbury gears up for two crucial votes on the slots proposal, many in Andover are plotting to stop the project. Residents vow to write letters, carry signs, and take other steps to influence their neighbors.

“We have to get a little committee here going to march across the border,” said John Pasquale, a longtime Andover resident.

A casino development’s effect on a surrounding community will be considered by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as it evaluates proposals for the state’s sole slots license.

“It is a competition,” said John Ziemba, ombudsman for the five-member commission. “How each of these applicants deals with the surrounding communities is something that we take into consideration.”

Penn National is competing against proposals in Leominster, Millbury, and Raynham for the slots license. A proposal for a slot parlor at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville was disqualified last week, after the gaming commission found former track president Gary T. Piontkowski withdrew $1.4 million in track revenues over several years. Owners of the harness-racing track are attempting to sell the property so a new applicant could seek the slots license prior to the Oct. 4 deadline.

Andover and Lowell have been identified by Penn National as the two surrounding communities that would most be affected by its development proposed for the Ames Pond Corporate Center in Tewksbury, located just south of the Route 133 and Interstate 495 interchange.

The state’s gambling law requires casino operators to identify surrounding communities and to negotiate agreements with them to address any potential negative effects, such as traffic.

“We look forward to constructive discussions,” Morris said.

Lowell City Manager Bernard Lynch said traffic, transportation, and competition for the city’s cultural attractions top his list of concerns.

“This type of facility could have an impact upon our existing restaurants and entertainment venues,” he said.

Alex Vispoli, chairman of the Andover Board of Selectmen, said his town wants to see studies on traffic and other issues, such as the environment, before negotiations start.

“We need to make sure the traffic studies are done right,” Vispoli said at last week’s forum. “We need to make sure that Andover’s interest, especially on that [Route 133] corridor, on all of those streets, all the way around are accounted for.”

Tewksbury faces two upcoming votes. On Aug. 20, a Special Town Meeting will be held to consider a zoning change to allow a casino, and other entertainment, in an area now zoned for business.

Penn National’s aggressive push to win support includes an online campaign called www.voteyesfortewksbury.com.

The company signed a host agreement, another key requirement of the state’s casino law, with Tewksbury last month.

It would make at least $3 million in annual payments to the town, and give town residents first crack at an estimated 1,000 temporary and 500 permanent jobs.

The plan has broad support in Tewksbury, where selectmen last month voted, 5 to 0, to approve the agreement.

On Sept. 21, Tewksbury will hold a special election, where voters will be asked to approve a ballot question to allow a casino to be located in the town. The vote is required by the state’s casino law.

Voter approval is necessary for Penn National’s application to advance before the Gaming Commission.

The commission could award the slots license by the end of this year.

Susan Tucker, a former state senator who was not in the Legislature when the gambling legislation was passed last November — urged her fellow Andover residents to reach out to Tewksbury residents.

“If you have any friends in Tewksbury, make your phone calls,” said Tucker, an ardent critic of the state’s gambling law.

Tucker last week joined a statewide effort to repeal the state’s casino law through a ballot referendum in 2014.

“I just want you to know, we’re going to try very hard to get this law repealed,” Tucker said, to loud applause.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@ globe.com.

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