Federal judge orders Foxborough to allow Kraft representatives to speak at meeting
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — An increasingly bitter land dispute between the town and its largest taxpayer, The Kraft Group, escalated Tuesday into federal court, where a judge ruled the town must allow Kraft representatives to publicly address the Board of Selectmen.
US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro issued the order Tuesday, in response to a lawsuit filed by the company founded by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Kraft’s civil rights complaint against Foxborough selectmen and Town Manager Kevin Paicos alleged that Kraft representatives were illegally denied the right to speak at public meetings about an ongoing ownership dispute over two advertising billboards on Route 1.
In a meeting that drew a capacity crowd at town hall, a representative for The Kraft Group criticized town officials last night for blocking company representatives from speaking two weeks ago.
‘‘I need to say that what transpired at the meeting two weeks ago was very sad and disappointing to us,’’ said Ted Fire, director of project administration for The Kraft Group.
In a brief but forceful statement, Fire also insisted the town is wrong to say it controls two billboards on Kraft land, and he referred to the town’s proposal to settle the dispute by eminent domain as ‘‘an ill-conceived solution to a fatally flawed process.’’
Several hours after Fire spoke, the board decided not to pursue an eminent domain taking of the billboards.
The protracted argument over the billboards has damaged the 27-year relationship between town government and the Kraft organization, just as Kraft is asking Foxborough to consider approving a $1 billion casino resort proposed by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn on land Kraft owns near Gillette Stadium.
A Wynn Resorts spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on Kraft’s dispute in Foxborough.
But Wynn and Kraft appeared together to introduce the casino project last December, and in the minds of local voters the two billionaires are inseparable, said Clyde Barrow, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth casino specialist. ‘‘What one of them does reflects totally on the other,’’ he said.
The disputed billboards date to a 2007 agreement between Kraft and the town that led to the construction of the Patriot Place retail mall.
Under the deal, the town agreed to ask the Legislature for a dozen liquor licenses, for which restaurants at Patriot Place could apply. Kraft agreed to make $7.5 million to $10 million in sewer improvements for the town, and the two sides agreed to share revenue on two new billboards, which The Kraft Group built on land it owns on Route 1.
For the past four years, the Kraft organization has managed the marketing of the billboard space, and the company and the town split the advertising revenue, 50 percent each.
Foxborough’s share totaled about $420,000 over the first four years of the agreement, according to the lawsuit.
The original agreement expires in May. Town leaders are seeking to put the billboard management contract out to public bid. It argues that a 2001 easement on the land gives it control of the billboards.
Town officials maintained Tuesday night that the decision to seek bids was a matter of law, not politics.
‘‘In going out to bid, there was no disrespect intended toward anybody,’’ said Town Counsel Paul DeRensis. ‘‘It wasn’t a criticism of the past, or the Patriots; it’s all driven by the law.’’
The Kraft organization said that an easement on the land for a water tower is unrelated to the billboards and maintained that the town has no right to hire a manager for billboards on the company’s private property.
The company tried to make its points in person to the Board of Selectmen on March 13, sending two representatives to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.
But Paicos objected. In an icy exchange, he accused the company of trying to use the forum to ‘‘subvert a public bidding process’’ and scare off potential bidders. The Kraft representatives were not allowed to speak.
Paicos said Tuesday he feared the Kraft representatives would poison the bidding pool by using a public meeting to broadcast their disputed claims about the billboards.
Town officials said Tuesday they had changed their position and no longer objected to Kraft representatives addressing selectmen, since The Kraft Group has informed the town in writing that it will not participate in the bidding on the billboard contract.
The town was prepared Tuesday to allow the representatives to speak even before the judge issued the order, said Paicos.
The Kraft Group noted Tuesday night, however, that it had informed the town weeks ago that it would not bid on the billboard contract.
Globe correspondent Evan Allen contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BostonGlobeMark.