Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone’s showdown with Las Vegas magnate Steve Wynn is finally here.
But don’t expect fireworks at Thursday’s hearing on Curtatone’s environmental appeal, which has unfortunately stopped Wynn’s $2 billion casino project in its tracks.
Lost in Curtatone’s rant against the Wynn casino in Everett is that this isn’t a case of the good Somerville mayor up against the big bad casino operator. Rather it’s Curtatone versus the state of Massachusetts.
That means the state environmental agency — which is holding the hearing — will have to decide if its own officials erred in issuing a permit to Wynn. This after thousands of pages of expert analysis reviewed by three federal agencies, 12 state agencies, 14 municipalities, and 20 local organizations over a three-year period in what is possibly the most scrutinized private sector project in the history of the Commonwealth.
Don’t bet against Wynn. The state won’t rescind its environmental permit for the casino. You’d get better odds on Roger Goodell declaring he made a mistake on Deflategate.
Key documents filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection before the hearing paint a portrait of a mayor desperately trying to hold together a legal challenge against the casino project, officially named Wynn Boston Harbor.
When Somerville filed an appeal to the state in February, Curtatone was worked up about the amount of traffic the casino would generate. He talked to anyone who would listen about the harm to the waterfront and to the health of his residents from all those car fumes.
“This is not about money. This is not about politics. This is not about traffic and inconvenience,” Curtatone told me in February. “This is about the consequences to our environment and to our public health.”
Two months later, a state hearing officer quashed that notion, ruling that the appeal needs to be focused on Chapter 91, a Massachusetts law governing development along tidelands and public access to the waterfront.
“To the extent [Curtatone] has alleged claims involving traffic, air quality, parking, private gain vs. public benefit, and to the extent those claims are not among those withdrawn by [Curtatone], those claims are dismissed,” wrote presiding officer Jane Rothchild, who will also oversee the hearing on Thursday.
So if the sexy parts of the legal claim are thrown out, what’s left to fight about?
For starters, the length of the Chapter 91 permit. Curtatone faulted the state for issuing an environmental permit for 85 years. After Curtatone’s filing, Team Wynn offered to reduce the length to 50 years. The Somerville mayor said no good — 30 years is enough.
Another issue: the boats. Since Somerville can’t complain about any cars the casino might bring, it has decided to worry about boat traffic in the Mystic River. In what could be the most absurd part of the hearing, both sides submitted dueling testimony from witnesses about boats that might clog the waterways in and around Somerville.
First of all, this is probably news to a lot of people that Somerville touches water. Yes, the city shares the Mystic River with Everett, but now Curtatone is concerned that Wynn will make the waterfront so nice with public docks that it will attract recreational boaters to the area. Watch out, Falmouth!
The last remaining issue gets at the heart of Chapter 91: What kind of impact will Wynn’s development have on the waterfront, and is he doing enough to ensure public access? This might be the weakest part of Somerville’s case.
Wynn is taking a contaminated parcel — the site of a shuttered Monsanto chemical plant — and spending $30 million to clean it up. Only he is crazy enough to then want to build a five-star resort casino on top of it. But that’s not all.
The billionaire wants to open up the Everett waterfront with a 6-acre public park with pedestrian and bicycle paths, a gazebo, picnic areas, and ornate landscaping only someone from Vegas would dream up. Wynn also wants to make the environment so clean that he can bring back fish, birds, and other native species to the area.
“One doesn’t have to overthink this one,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an advocacy group that supports the Wynn project. “What’s there now is unusable and contaminated. What will be there is public parkland and bike paths along an improved riverfront.”
After Thursday’s hearing, both sides will then submit closing briefs. Rothchild, the presiding officer, will issue a decision within 30 days, which means sometime in July. If Curtatone loses, he could file a lawsuit in state Superior Court, but that wouldn’t stop Wynn from breaking ground on his casino.
I get it. Curtatone is just trying to get the most for the good people of Somerville, just like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh went all litigious on Wynn until they came to an agreement.
But this is getting ridiculous. Maybe Curtatone thinks so too. The normally media-friendly mayor didn’t have time to get on the phone Tuesday to take another blast at Wynn. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a truce.