The decision environmental affairs secretary Matt Beaton must make by Friday should be very straightforward: has casino developer Steve Wynn, who wants to build a large resort casino in Everett, satisfied all the conditions of the state’s environmental-review law?
It’s a technical, even arcane, determination, based on about 100,000 pages of mind-numbing filings from Wynn. The paperwork deals with everything from wastewater discharge to pedestrian bridges. All developers of large projects have to go through the same process, which usually attracts little attention.
But, in a burst of late-summer controversy, the environmental review has become a flashpoint. Attorney General Maura Healey has asked Beaton to reject the casino environmental filing as inadequate, primarily because it does not contain a long-term transportation plan for nearby Sullivan Square, one of the region’s worst chokepoints.
Wynn’s supporters have fired back, insisting that it’s unreasonable to use environmental-review to force Wynn to solve a problem that has many causes and has existed for decades. Healey’s prescription, they say, would misuse the review process, and expand its scope to include requirements that no other developer has to satisfy. This would, the argument goes, make Wynn responsible for forging consensus on long-term plans that neither he nor anyone else can just order up with the snap of a finger. Why not demand he solve the Gardner heist, too?
With all the bad blood in the air — Boston is also in the midst of a lawsuit over the casino — there’s a Nobel Peace Prize in it for Beaton if he can work out a solution that doesn’t end in more lawyers and woe. But over the last few days, an outline of a possible compromise has come into view. Wynn should get his certificate if Beaton deems he’s met the standard requirements, but the Baker administration must step up to lead an all-stakeholder effort to solve the gridlock.
Stephanie PollacK, the state transportation secretary, submitted a letter to Beaton that can form the basis of transportation planning going forward. In the letter, she dropped MassDOT’s objections to Wynn’s plan, writing that his offers in the environmental filing to subsidize Orange Line operations and make other commitments would sufficiently mitigate the casino’s environmental impact to meet Wynn’s formal requirements.
But she also acknowledged the validity of Healey’s concern: the state needs a long-term transportation plan for Sullivan Square. Near the intersection of four cities — Somerville, Everett, Cambridge, and Boston — and next to a crowded Interstate 93 interchange, it has become what Charlestown state representative Dan Ryan recently described as a “concrete quagmire.” There’s more to come; in addition to the casino, Somerville’s Assembly Row is growing rapidly, and plans for a large residential development in the Northpoint area of Cambridge are taking shape.
Healey suggested that Beaton require a long-term plan to cope with all that growth as a condition of Wynn’s certificate. She wants Beaton to put the brakes on the certificate, and give the parties more time — 90 days, perhaps — to make progress on a long-term accord. It’s a problematic approach, though, for a host of reasons. The procedure outlined in Healey’s letter to Beaton would put Wynn’s certificate at the mercy of third parties — especially the city of Boston, which must play a crucial role in any long-term solution. While Boston has dropped its earlier refusal to attend traffic planning meetings with Wynn, and now vows to continue cooperating, the city’s future decisions are beyond the casino’s control. The attorney general’s stance would also exceed the specific guidance Wynn was already given by the state; in April, Beaton urged Wynn to participate in talks for a long-term plan but didn’t require him to complete one. Wynn — or, worse, his attorneys — could make a credible case the state was moving the goalposts at the last minute.
Healey’s reasoning for keeping the project inside the environmental-review process is fundamentally pragmatic: it would allow the state to maintain the most leverage. While the Wynn project still needs various permits, the state environmental certificate is the big kahuna; without Beaton’s approval on Friday, the entire project remains frozen. When it comes to maintaining leverage over Wynn, she may be right (though Wynn has already committed, in writing, to pay $25 million toward long-term upgrades). But the state also needs to keep up leverage over the other responsible parties in Sullivan Square. It’s the cities of Boston, Somerville, Everett, and Cambridge, after all, that have let the area get as bad as it already is and, in Boston’s case, have a record of boycotting meetings.
Pollack’s solution would take long-term transportation planning out of Wynn’s environmental-review process, and in so doing keep everyone’s feet to the fire. Her approach deserves a chance to work.
On the immediate question of
To address Healey’s concern that granting the certificate now will mean losing leverage over Wynn, the state has several options. If Wynn steps back from traffic negotiations, for instance, the governor could call on the Gaming Commission to withhold the final approval it needs to open. Healey herself can also supply some leverage. She will soon have an opportunity to name a new member to the commission; she can pick an aggressive regulator who will help keep up the pressure on Wynn and all the state’s other gaming companies to work constructively with neighboring cities.