BOSTON—Environmental groups' concerns over a proposal to lift a ban on casino construction on 300 acres of land in Fall River prompted the state Senate to postpone debate Wednesday on a bill that would legalize casinos in Massachusetts.
Sen. Mark Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford, objected to a proposed land-use amendment that would allow a casino to be built on land that was originally intended for a biotechnology park. Current law prohibits the construction of a casino there.
Environmental advocates said they fear such a move would undermine efforts to preserve undeveloped land.
"This will establish a dangerous precedent and send us backward in strengthening land preservation in Massachusetts," said James McCaffery, the director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Fall River Redevelopment Authority acquired the land from the state in 2002 under the stipulation prohibiting the development of a landfill or a casino. Sen. Joan Menard, a Fall River Democrat who sponsored the amendment, said the restriction needed to be lifted because Fall River has reached an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoags to have the tribe build a casino there.
Menard's proposal requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate and should not be part of the casino bill, Montigny said. Menard disagreed and said the amendment should go forward.
Environmental groups, including The Trustees of Reservation and the Greater Fall River Land Conservancy, have sided with Montigny. McCaffery of the Sierra Club said he does not believe Menard's amendment has received enough scrutiny.
"This seems a rather casual disposal and disregard of the plans for original use," McCaffery said.
Menard said that a casino would help stem Fall River's double-digit unemployment rate, which is one of the highest in the state.
Under the Senate's casino bill, three resort-style casinos would be licensed, with each license going to a casino in three distinct regions. Casino proposals for Fall River and New Bedford would be in direct competition with each other for a license in the southeast region.
Menard said that Montigny's efforts are motivated by his desire to see a casino in his district.
"I think his advocacy is designed to at least have New Bedford be part of the consideration for a casino," Menard said.
Sen. Montigny countered that Menard "is hiding behind the fact that she is trying to put dirty environmental policy in a casino bill," he said.
Fall River Mayor William Flanagan said he understands the concerns of the environmental groups, but that a proposed biotechnology park would also have meant development of the land. He said Fall River could house both a casino and the biotechnology park.
Montigny said if the Mashpee Wampanoags are granted a casino license on the land in Fall River, New Bedford would be glad to house the proposed biotechnology park.
Senate President Therese Murray said she will not allow any more delays in the casino debate, so the land issue is expected to be resolved on Thursday when debate resumes at 2 p.m.