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[an error occurred while processing this directive] Foxborough OK's Patriots stadium

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 12/07/99

OXBOROUGH - The New England Patriots finally ended their decade-long stadium saga last night when more than 93 percent of Foxborough voters approved the team's $275 million stadium plan.

A record 2,243 Foxborough voters turned out for the Town Meeting on the stadium proposal at Foxboro High School.

The local vote, required by the bill passed by the Legislature May 18, ends a 10-year stadium drama that led the Patriots through three states and four owners.

Four of the six articles passed by Foxborough voters last night required only a majority vote. But the most controversial elements of the stadium plan required a two-thirds majority, hurdles the Patriots easily cleared shortly before 11 p.m.

Plan opponents conceded after attempts to limit use of a much-debated access road were defeated.

''We accept the town vote and now hope Mr. Kraft will be the wonderful neighbor he said he would be and take care of the access-road abutters by making up for their lost property values,'' said Karen Lovejoy, a North Street resident and access-road opponent.

Team officials waited for votes on all six stadium-related issues to be completed before exulting in the result.

''We are absolutely thrilled with the support we got here tonight,'' Patriots chief operating officer Andrew Wasynczuk said. ''We look forward to ensuring this project is something both the town and the Patriots organization can be proud of.''

Voters who packed the meeting at the high school last night, filling the auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, and portions of a massive heated tent erected over the weekend to accommodate the overflow, considered six separate stadium-related issues.

The most hotly disputed were zoning changes needed to approve a 1,000-foot access road needed to speed luxury suite patrons to and from the stadium, and the team's proposed lease agreement with the town. Other questions included restrictions on signs, a land-swap agreement, and easements for water and sewer improvements for the stadium and surrounding areas.

Patriots officials said approvals were needed for all six issues for the project to proceed.

Early in the evening, a stadium opponent spoke passionately against the town's lease agreement with the team, which the Patriots estimate is worth about $2 million a year to Foxborough.

''I remember seeing Mr. Kraft on TV signing an agreement with the governor of Connecticut, and then he turned around and broke it,'' Helen Merigan said to a scattering of applause. ''If you vote this down, the sun will come up tomorrow.''

But when it appeared that opponents were attempting to filibuster with a series of amendments in hopes that stadium supporters would depart before a final vote was taken, stadium advocates went into action. Their leader was 95-year-old Elizabeth Friedmann.

From her wheelchair, Friedmann, who helped lead the push for the current Patriots stadium 28 years ago, moved to cut off debate by calling for a vote on the first article, which involves the lease agreement. When the article passed with more than 97 percent of voters in favor, it indicated the Patriots would have more than enough votes to pass the other five articles in the stadium package.

Stadium supporters, including most town leaders, used similar parliamentary tactics to skirt attempts to force delays or reconsiderations of votes after they had passed.

Since the meeting was only open to registered voters, police and town officials were vigilant in restricting access to the meeting rooms, all of which were wired for sound so that all voters could participate in the debate.

Patriots representatives were not allowed inside the meeting. Team officials, led by Wasynczuk, who has been directing the team's stadium struggle the past six months, watched a live broadcast of the proceedings in a nearby room.

Team owner Robert Kraft, who came under heavy criticism when the team tried to move to South Boston several years ago, has maintained the low profile he has kept since the spring when the Patriots stunned Connecticut by walking away from a $1 billion publicly financed stadium deal in Hartford.

Although Kraft and his son Jonathan were not in Foxborough last night, they closely monitored the Town Meeting's progress by telephone as they worked late in Boston on a business deal unrelated to the stadium Kraft appealed for voters' support in a letter sent to every Foxborough household late last week.

In recent months, the Patriots polled Foxborough voters several times to gauge support for the stadium package. At one point last summer, backing for the plan appeared soft. Some on the team attributed the lackluster showing to a misperception of many Foxborough residents that the stadium deal adopted by the Legislature did not require any local approvals. But some voters also questioned whether a stadium access road, which has been the subject of controversy, was necessary.

Concerned over the poll results, the Patriots launched what amounted to a political campaign, complete with rallies on the town common led by the team's players, including quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The team also ran ads in the local newspaper, sweetened its lease agreement with the town, and agreed to help the town build a larger sewage treatment plant that could accommodate nonstadium development. Team officials also met with virtually every local group, from the chamber of commerce to the cribbage club.

A recent poll conducted by the team showed voters supporting the stadium plan by a ratio of more than 4 to 1.

Opponents of the stadium plan, who argued the road would bring too much traffic and noise into their neighborhood, tried to amend the Patriots' proposal to limit use of the access road to NFL games only.

But stadium supporters countered that the Patriots need authority to use the road to control traffic for any event that attracts 50,000 or more patrons, including concerts.

Shortly after 10 p.m. Foxborough voters rejected amendments to limit use of the access road by nearly 87 percent, and it appeared the Patriots were poised to win the two-thirds vote required to approve the necessary zoning changes.

But a crucial question of timing remains. When the Patriots walked away from Hartford in the spring, team officials said a major reason was that Connecticut could not clean up and deliver the proposed stadium site in time for the 2001 opening date specified under the contract.

Ironically, because Foxborough delayed scheduling the town vote for almost six months, it's now unclear whether the new Foxboro Stadium can be constructed before the start of the 2002 season.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/07/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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