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Neighbors preparing case against Milford casino plan

By Ellen Ishkanian
Globe Correspondent / February 23, 2012
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Residents in Holliston are preparing for a fight against a proposed casino along Interstate 495, just over the border in Milford, the way a defense or prosecution team would get ready for trial.

As about 45 town residents listened last week, Board of Selectmen chairman Jay Marsden outlined a strategy that will include small research groups working over the course of the next nine months to a year perfecting arguments showing how surrounding communities would be hurt by the proposed $850 million Crossroads Resort casino, hotel, and retail complex.

The proposal’s developer, David Nunes, will have to make his case to the state Gaming Commission that the Milford site will boost jobs, development, and revenue in the area, Marsden said. “We have to go in and argue the other side,’’ he said.

“We have to make our case that this is a terrible location, and that it is not going to do what they say it will.’’

Over the next few weeks, Marsden said, a list of volunteers will be circulated by e-mail, working groups will be established, and research will begin. “We’ll put together presentations that address each issue, and we’ll go through a dry run, a mock trial, so to speak,’’ he said.

Nunes, however, said the final plans won’t be presented to the Milford Board of Selectmen for another three to four months.

“It’s hard to try and dispel something before there is a finalized plan and they see all the dynamics that are going into it,’’ he said in a telephone interview after the Holliston meeting.

Initial plans include a 176,000-square-foot gambling floor, a 350-room hotel, and 60,000 square feet of retail shops and restaurant space.

Marsden said a list of specific areas of concern to be researched is still being formulated, but many residents talked about how increased traffic would change the character of Holliston. They said drivers traveling from points east to gamble in Milford would clog an already heavily traveled Route 16.

Nunes, however, said the only access to the casino complex from Route 16 would be for emergency use. “Police and fire vehicles are the only ones that will be able to use that road,’’ he said.

The only public access to the complex, he said, would be from an offramp that would be added to I-495. He said he has already had conversations with officials from the state Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, the Federal Highway Administration, and congressional representatives.

“We know exactly how we are going to do this,’’ Nunes said.

The list of Holliston objections will go beyond Route 16 traffic concerns, however, and are expected to include the complex’s potential impact on water availability in a town reliant on wells, infrastructure, public safety, school enrollment, property values, the environment, and small area businesses.

Many residents who attended last week’s strategy session in Holliston said they are willing to work on a committee.

“I’m absolutely ready,’’ said Marilyn Horn. The casino complex “will totally destroy Holliston if it is allowed to be built. We really have to do everything we can to keep this out of our area.’’

Residents also voiced frustration that while they will feel the impact of the development, they will have no direct say in the decision. The law stipulates that only residents of the city or town where the casino will be sited have the ability to approve or reject a proposal.

“It is totally unfair that we don’t get a vote in this. It is appalling,’’ Horn said.

Holliston officials said they are considering placing a nonbinding referendum question about the casino on the November presidential election ballot to gauge the level of opposition to the Milford proposal.

Nunes said he expects to present his final plans to the Milford Board of Selectmen and then Town Meeting over the next three to four months, to get their reaction before a vote goes before the town in a general election.

Other sites vying for the single casino license available between Boston and Worcester include Suffolk Downs in East Boston, and a proposed complex near Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

The Board of Selectmen in Foxborough has already taken a vote indicating its opposition to a casino there, and the Planning Board in bordering Norfolk also voted unanimously to oppose the proposal.

While a vote in an adjacent town cannot stop a casino from being built, the Gaming Commission is required to consider relative support and opposition from neighboring communities. In addition, surrounding towns can ask the commission to require the developer to pay for additional studies to assess the impact of the proposal.

“Mitigation funds would pay the check for these services after the town presumably hired the consultant,’’ said state Representative Carolyn Dykema, a Holliston Democrat who opposed the casino legislation.

She said lobbying efforts on behalf of the casino industry and proposed casinos have already begun on Beacon Hill.

It may soon begin from the opposing side as well. Holliston Selectman Jay Leary said he has had conversations with elected officials from neighboring towns about getting together to hire a professional public relations or lobbying firm to spearhead the opposition effort.

But, Marsden cautioned, the research, mock trials, and meetings are taking place in preparation of something that may never happen.

If voters in Milford reject the casino plans or the developer decides against moving forward with the proposal for whatever reason, all the work will have been unnecessary.

“It’s a success if you never have to go to trial,’’ Marsden said.

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