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Tewksbury to vote on casino zoning

Opposing sides lobbying on $200m project

Twitter is abuzz with tweets from pro- and anti-gambling forces. A Facebook page urges people to say “No Slots,” while a website and a YouTube video urge residents to say “Yes.”

But Tewksbury town meeting members on Tuesday will decide the old-fashioned way whether the proposed $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino should be allowed to be built on 30 acres of woodland off Route 133, near the Andover town line.

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A Special Town Meeting will be held to consider a zoning amendment to create the Ames Pond Overlay District, which would allow a slots parlor to operate on land now zoned for business and research use.

A two-thirds majority vote is required to approve the amendment. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Tewksbury Memorial High School.

“We’re definitely gearing up for a big crowd,” said Denise Graffeo, Tewksbury’s town clerk.

The Board of Selectmen last month signed a community host agreement, a key requirement of the state’s gaming law, that, if implemented, would generate at least $3 million in annual revenues for the town, and give Tewksbury residents hiring preference for an estimated 1,000 temporary and 500 permanent jobs.

“We got a good deal,” Town Manager Richard Montuori told the Finance Committee on Thursday.

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Still, a vigorous debate is expected at the Special Town Meeting over whether the slots parlor — which caught many by surprise when proposed last month — belongs in the town of nearly 33,000. Among the chief concerns for those against the casino are traffic, crime, and a drop in property values.

“This came to us in July, and now, here it is August, and we have to make a decision?” said Anne Marie Stronach, a former selectwoman who is in the “no” camp. “We don’t have enough time to make a good decision.”

“This is going to be right outside my bedroom window,” Jane Olsen, a 35-year resident of Olsen Drive, said at a Planning Board hearing Monday. “This is going to make all our lives so different. Our home values will go down.”

But others counter that Tewksbury — which in recent years has had to pass temporary tax increases to build a high school and repair sewers — can’t afford to just say no.

“My taxes every year go up, up, up,” said Larry Daley, a homeowner and union electrician who was holding a “Yes for Tewksbury” sign in front of Town Hall on Monday.

“We need this to expand our tax base,” said Rob Dugan, another union electrician. “This project will give us a lot of tax dollars.”

Penn National Gaming — one of four companies vying for the slots parlor license expected to be awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in December — has proposed building a 125,000-square-foot facility, which would include a 24-hour slots parlor with 1,250 gaming machines.

A Doug Flutie sports bar, a two-screen movie theater with in-seat dining for 320 patrons, and a food court and a restaurant are expected to be included in the development.

Penn National has courted public support. After the company pledged to provide $900,000 in public safety funds, town police and fire unions on Thursday endorsed the zoning amendment. The company also has announced partnerships with the regional tourism board to promote the facility, and with Middlesex Community College to train workers.

Still, the casino’s fate rests with Tewksbury voters, said Jeff Morris, a company spokesman.

“The decision to have us here is up to the residents,” said Morris, who is leading the Yes for Tewksbury campaign. “But we’re confident . . . that ultimately the people of Tewksbury will be able to support the idea.”

The Special Town Meeting is the first of two critical events. On Sept. 21, a special election will be held to allow voters to decide whether the casino should be located at 300 Ames Pond Drive, just south of the interchange of Route 133 and Interstate 495.

Even if the new zoning is not approved Tuesday, the special election will still have to be held, said Town Counsel Charles Zaroulis. “Once a special election is posted, it must be held,” he said. “Even if the zoning article is defeated this coming Tuesday, or if for some reason [Penn National] felt their project was no longer viable, the election would still have to be held.”

The zoning amendment also has generated sharp debate among town boards.

The Finance Committee voted, 4 to 1, on Thursday to recommend adoption of the zoning amendment at the Special Town Meeting. But the board also voted to sit down with the Board of Selectmen to see if a richer financial agreement can be negotiated for the town.

“Some of the items need additional clarity, and I would also like to see additional funds,” said Finance Committee member David McGinness.

The Planning Board, which also must make a recommendation on the article, won’t tip its hand until Tuesday. After last week’s hearing, the board voted to reconvene at 6:30 p.m. at the high school — prior to the Special Town Meeting — to vote on its recommendation.

The board held two workshops with Penn National to craft the new zoning, but some members want more information on issues such as traffic mitigation and the impact on property values. “Those are things that should be part of our record,” said vice chairman David Plunkett. “I’d like to know more about traffic.”

But member Stephen Johnson said those questions are not relevant to the new zoning. “We’ve had people come in before for overlay districts and we’ve never asked them for traffic studies,” he said. “We’ve been asked to decide whether or not this is a solid zoning.”

Reach Kathy McCabe at katherine.mccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kmccabe.

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