Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

August 15, 2013

Town bracing for vote on slots

Crime, traffic top concerns as Tewksbury casino faces first test

By Dustin Luca
dluca@andovertownsman.com

---- — The biggest problem on Jordyn Lane today is people cutting through the neighborhood to fish on Ames Pond, located just over the Andover town line in Tewksbury.

But if the Merrimack Valley Casino is built in their backyards, some residents are worried about a lot more than a few fishermen parking on their street.

They say the $200 million, 1,250-machine, slots-only casino could attract crime, worsen an already horrible traffic situation and generally diminish their quality of life.

Tewksbury residents will vote Tuesday, Aug. 20, at a Special Town Meeting on whether to modify zoning at 300 Ames Pond Drive to support Penn National Gaming’s casino proposal. The casino question will then go to a town-wide ballot vote Sept. 21.

While Andover residents don’t have a vote in the matter, many — especially those on the Tewksbury line — are carefully watching as the process unfolds.

Jordyn Lane resident Steve Wallingford said he could throw a rock from the edge of his property that would land where the casino is being proposed.

He’s concerned about the project for a few reasons — around-the-clock light shining through the trees, too much noise and crime.

“I think you’d be naive to believe we wouldn’t have those problems in our backyards,” he said. “That’s not even an exaggeration anymore. It’s very, very close, and I don’t care how clean they claim their operation is. It’s hard to control the sort of individual who frequents their establishment.”

Today, Jordyn Lane is a quiet cul-de-sac neighborhood of large, two- and three-car garage homes. With 11 homes on the street, the average property value on Jordyn Lane is $909,636, with the highest parcel being worth $1.4 million. The neighborhood was built between 1997 and 2001, according to assessing data available through the town website.

But it’s not only abutters concerned about the potential impact of a slots casino.

Rose Titus lives on Fiske Street — a couple miles from where the casino is being proposed — and she worries about what it might do to her neighborhood as well.

“It’s a nice neighborhood for people to take walks, say hi to their neighbors,” she said. “I feel safe in the neighborhood, at this point in time.”

Like Wallingford, Titus is worried about the casino customers, and what they’ll bring if the casino wins approval to lure around-the-clock activity to the Merrimack Valley.

“You’re going to have a lot of people coming from outside of town and surrounding towns to visit the casino,” she said. “They’ll be drinking, then they’ll get in their cars.

“The people who live near here, they don’t feel good about it.”

But Penn National Gaming, the company proposing the casino, says residents should not be worried about crime.

“In Bangor, Maine, the biggest call the police chief gets from (the Penn casino in the area) is people locking their keys in the car,” Jeff Morris, director of Public Affairs for Penn, said. “We see crime decrease in all our jurisdictions. Bangor has seen a considerable decrease. You see the same in Toledo .... Same thing in Charlestown, W.V.; Grantville, Pa.”

Aside from crime, the other big concern facing the casino proposal is traffic. At a recent Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Larchmont Circle resident Bill Westaway highlighted some of the traffic implications facing Andover if the casino is built.

“We’re getting traffic jams at 5 o’clock,” he said. “There’s no way you can get through there, and the reason you can’t get through there is, essentially, the access to (Routes) 93 and 495 are totally screwed up. That’s being generous.”

Spokesman Morris agreed that traffic in the area is bad, but that the company will do whatever it takes to reduce the casino’s impact on the problem.

“Part of the discussion is how to be a good neighbor,” Morris said. “Part of the traffic study and agreement we weighed with Tewksbury is we’ll fully fund any traffic mitigation — traffic and infrastructure. Additional issues with Andover or Lowell, when we get into our surrounding community discussions .... it’s preliminary to talk detail, but that’s what it’s for.”

BARRIERS TO BREAK

Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting vote in Tewksbury is only the first of ultimately six approvals Penn National Gaming needs to launch Merrimack Valley Casino. Here are the steps it faces:

1. SPECIAL TOWN MEETING, Tuesday, Aug. 20: Penn National Gaming must win a two-thirds majority approval of Tewksbury Town Meeting for new zoning to support a casino on the Ames Pond Drive site.

2. TOWN ELECTION, Saturday, Sept. 21: Tewksbury residents must support a referendum ballot vote adopting the gaming proposal itself. A simple majority is needed.

3. SUITABILITY DECISION, by Aug. 31: The Massachusetts Gaming Commission will conduct a hearing into the suitability of Penn National Gaming running a casino in the state. The proposal only advances if a heavily detailed background check is cleared.

4. APPLICATION DEADLINE, Friday, Oct. 4: Penn must file an application with the state, complete with both Tewksbury votes in support of its proposal and surrounding community agreements with the town of Andover and city of Lowell.

5. LICENSE AWARD, December 2013 to February 2014: The state gaming commission will award the single slots-only casino license in the state to the gaming company it feels is most deserving based on its plan, work with surrounding communities and history in other areas. Penn National Gaming’s proposed Tewksbury casino is one of four currently seeking the slots-only license.

6. PERMITTING PROCESS: If Penn receives the slots-only license, it must complete the standard permitting process that governs all construction projects and secure the necessary planning and conservation permits. The permitting process will include input from abutters — including Andover’s Jordyn Lane residents — and offers opportunities for town officials to still shoot down the proposal, according to Tewksbury Selectmen Chairman Scott Wilson.