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Patriots seek OK for mega mall complex from divided town officials

FOXBOROUGH -- There hasn't been much debate in Foxborough about whether Patriot Place should be built. Everyone seems to want the massive shopping and entertainment complex next to Gillette Stadium.

But there is plenty of disagreement brewing about just how much the town should be paid for hosting the regional attraction and how officials can get the best deal.

The acrimony, which pits the town's Board of Selectmen against its Planning Board, threatens to put the project, one of the largest commercial developments ever in the communities south of Boston, in a legal tangle.

Selectmen are troubled that on Jan. 11 the Planning Board granted zoning approval of the 1.3-million-square-foot project. The unanimous approval removed one of the only forms of leverage the town had, selectmen complain, and now it will be harder to win financial concessions from Patriots owner Robert Kraft's organization.

Around the time the Planning Board acted, the selectmen set up a special committee to negotiate with the Kraft organization. It had not had its first meeting with officials from the team when the Planning Board acted.

"It was disappointing that time wasn't given for us to have an independent review of the economic impacts to the community before they took their action," said Michael P. Stanton, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Selectmen are so troubled that they say they may take legal action against the Planning Board, not good news for the project.

Officials from the Patriots organization declined to comment on the conflict, other than to say that the team is prepared to work closely with the community. Patriots spokesman Stacey James said team officials had been focused on the NFL season, but are turning their attention to Patriot Place.

The 90-acre development actually would be two shopping centers, one an open-air lifestyle mall with specialty shops, restaurants, and a movie megaplex; the other a cluster of big-box stores, including Bass Pro Shops.

Also planned are a hotel, broadcast studios, a New England Patriots museum, health club, and medical offices. Gillette Stadium would serve as a backdrop to the development, which would be built on existing parking lots.

In addition to the dispute in Foxborough town government, the project has sparked traffic concerns in surrounding communities. Residents of Norfolk, Plainville, Walpole, and Wrentham have voiced fears that motorists will use side streets in their towns to approach the project, which will be accessible only from Route 1.

State Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who represents Foxborough and nine other area communities, said he believes that the project will benefit the region if traffic can be managed.

"Obviously, it's in a place well suited for this kind of development, if it is gone about the right way," Timilty said.

Planning Board approval is one of several actions the Kraft group needs from Foxborough. The organization is seeking approval of a dozen new liquor licenses for restaurants and lounges in the complex, as well as authorization for the development's sewer and water systems.

Bass Pro Shops, a 180,000-square-foot outdoor retail and entertainment facility, recently became the first Patriot Place business to file for a building permit with the town. Other outlets are expected to follow suit soon.

If selectmen decide to appeal the Planning Board's action, they must wait until the town Building Department issues a permit for the project. Any appeal would then go to the town's Zoning Board of Appeals.

Selectman say that financial concessions from the Kraft organization are needed to offset the extra municipal costs the megacomplex would generate. The burden that the development will place on town departments -- mainly Police, Fire, and Public Works -- has been the subject of considerable debate in recent weeks.

A study commissioned by the Patriots concluded that the new taxes and fees generated by the completed project will net the town $2 million a year after subtracting the cost of new town services. A study by a consultant hired by the town stated that the town's net gain would be around $800,000.

The town's consultant projected that the municipality will need to hire seven police officers and eight firefighters to handle the needs of the development.

Town leaders voiced hope that the boards can resolve their differences without legal action.

"I'm confident we are going to work through this and get the town what it needs," Planning Board chairman Kevin Weinfeld said.

Foxborough Town Planner Marc Resnick said the matter might be resolved in talks between the selectmen's negotiating committee and the Patriots organization.

The town and the Patriots have enjoyed mostly friendly relations over the years, and local officials lobbied hard to keep the team when it considered moving in the late 1990s.

"I don't think there is anyone in town trying to stop the project," said Nancy J. Campany, a lawyer who lives in Foxborough near the stadium. "We are trying to see that it doesn't have an adverse financial impact on the town."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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