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Milford

Neighboring towns speak out on casino

Coalition voices fears about impact on region

As Milford enters the final stage of negotiating a host community agreement with Foxwoods Massachusetts, officials in some neighboring communities are not ready to concede any ground to the Connecticut developer whose proposed casino they say would change the character of the entire region.

MetroWest Anti-Casino Coalition chairman Brian Herr, who is also chairman of the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen, said his group is prepared to hire consultants to perform independent studies to double-check Foxwoods’ findings on the likely traffic, economic, and social impacts from the casino complex that it wants to build next to Interstate 495 and Route 16 in East Milford.

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He also said the coalition, which includes selectmen from Ashland, Holliston, and Medway, is not ready to begin any talks with Foxwoods about how the developer could mitigate the proposed casino’s effects on nearby communities.

“There is nothing to negotiate yet,” said Herr . “It’s my view that the content of what’s being proposed in that host agreement is seriously flawed. Some of it is pie-in-the-sky wishes, and they are just that — wishes, not based in reality.”

Foxwoods officials say they are not ready to talk publicly about mitigation agreements with neighboring communities.

However, Scott Butera, president and chief executive of Foxwoods Resort Casino, the Connecticut operation proposing the Milford project, reiterated in an e-mail to the Globe that his company hired local experts to conduct “exhaustive analysis of all aspects of the development,” which were vetted by independent consultants and town department heads.

“Based on months of hard work, we know that impacts can not only be adequately addressed, but the area’s infrastructure and services will be improved. This development is an economic injection of millions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and more business for Milford and the surrounding communities,” Butera wrote.

But Holliston Selectman Jay Marsden, also a member of the coalition, said he wants “someone acting for me” to verify Foxwoods’ assertions, especially about traffic, property values, and crime. “I want someone who is in my camp doing the same studies to verify the information everyone is moving forward with,” he said.

Milford officials are scheduled to meet on Wednesday to discuss a final draft of a host agreement outlining the scope of the project and the developer’s mitigation offer, which could include millions in annual tax revenue as well as additional up-front and annual payments to the local police, fire, and school departments.

If the selectmen sign the agreement with Foxwoods, a townwide referendum on the proposal would be held this fall, likely in early November. If the host community agreement is approved by voters, Special Town Meeting would be convened to consider rezoning the 187-acre parcel to accommodate the casino, a decision that requires a two-thirds majority.

The proposal’s defeat at any point would also end the bid by Foxwoods Massachusetts to obtain the lone resort casino license to be awarded in Eastern Massachusetts by the state Gaming Commission.

Foxwoods is competing for the license with Suffolk Downs in East Boston and Revere, and a Wynn Resorts proposal for a casino on the Mystic River in Everett. The commission is slated to make its decision by April.

Milford officials and residents hold all the cards on whether Foxwoods can complete the requirements for its application. Nearby towns have no vote in the project, but can seek designation by the Gaming Commission as a surrounding community, which would give local officials the right to negotiate for mitigation funds.

“We have already filed to be a surrounding community,” said Franklin Town Council chairman Bob Vallee. “I’m personally not opposed to having a casino down the road, but our concern would be traffic on 495, and if it affects our town, we’d want compensation.”

Bellingham Town Administrator Mark J. Purple echoed Vallee, saying traffic along the highway could be a concern.

Purple said his town is relying on the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to review Foxwoods’ plans.

“The MAPC is looking at everything on our behalf, and we’re very happy with the work they are doing and the approach they are taking,” he said.

That’s not how members of the anticasino coalition see things. In a letter sent to the MAPC earlier this month, the coalition charged the agency with overstepping its bounds.

“In our opinion, the MAPC has lost sight of the fact that some surrounding communities oppose the proposed facility because its impacts cannot be mitigated without effecting an undesired transformation of the character of the community or creating other undesirable adverse consequences,” the letter stated.

But the agency’s deputy director, Joel Barrera, said its sole role is to help the nearby communities “with technical assistance and expertise to identify impacts and to minimize or mitigate those impacts.”

In an e-mail to the Globe, Barrera wrote that the planning council is “committed to giving our communities the assistance that they need to understand the project, understand the Gaming Commission process, and to effectively advocate for their interests themselves.”

And while the licensing process established by the Legislature allows surrounding towns to negotiate for mitigation, it leaves those opposing casinos in a tricky position, according to several local officials.

“My hope and my expectation is that MAPC will play the role of vetting the issues, but is someone willing to say that an issue simply can’t be mitigated?’’ Marsden asked. “At what point are we supposed to negotiate for mitigation on impacts that might not be able to be mitigated?”

Water, according to Marsden, may be one of those issues.

Foxwoods’ consultants have said there is enough water in untapped wells and other sources to expand Milford’s capacity to provide enough water for the casino while increasing the town’s supply. And safeguards in the host agreement would insure those sources are up and running before building permits are granted.

“But what if a couple years down the road someone says, ‘Oops, we messed up these figures? We’re having some challenges?’ Water either exists, or it doesn’t,” Marsden said.

“I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m not trying to have a negative response to everything, but I just don’t believe you can solve every problem.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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