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Kraft lawyer drafted casino zoning changes

Foxborough asked for plan, tabled it

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / October 18, 2011

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A lawyer for the Kraft Group drafted zoning changes for the town of Foxborough this summer that would have allowed construction of casinos on property the company owns across from Gillette Stadium, raising the prospect that one of the state’s most powerful families could have a role in the Commonwealth’s plans for expanded gambling.

The Kraft Group said the changes were submitted at the town manager’s request. The manager, Kevin Paicos, also said he asked the Kraft lawyer to draft the proposal and that he brought the issue to selectmen at the request of several developers, whom he declined to name.

Those developers, he said, were testing the viability of potential sites across the state in anticipation of the Legislature approving casinos and a slot-machine parlor.

But the zoning plans were met with hostility by both the town Planning Board and the Board of Selectmen, which shelved the plans.

The Krafts, who own the New England Patriots, would face a number of significant hurdles if they choose to pursue a casino or sell property to a developer. NFL rules bar franchises from owning casinos. And the pending casino bill requires that any casino developer win approval in a local ballot initiative before winning a license, something that could prove a very tough sell in Foxborough.

While the Krafts said they “have absolutely no interest’’ in giving up control of their property across from the stadium that is needed for parking, they did not specifically rule out interest in a casino.

“To date, that has not been an option,’’ Stacey James, a Kraft spokesman, said in response to e-mailed questions about the team’s interest in a casino. “We have spent considerable time, energy, and financial resources trying to pursue a major commercial development. . . . The site has been shovel-ready for development for several years, and we will continue to seek large-scale development options that will generate thousands of jobs for this region.’’

James said the company does not believe a slot facility “is the right fit for our site.’’ But beyond that, “we are not going to limit ourselves to speculative comments on specific developments.’’

The Senate approved a bill last week that would authorize three casinos and one slot-machine parlor. The House approved a similar measure last month, and Governor Deval Patrick has indicated his support, as well.

The Kraft lawyer’s role in drafting the zoning change was first reported by the Sun Chronicle, which has followed the controversy closely.

Town planner Sharon Wason said that even if the Krafts did not directly request the zoning change to allow gambling, they did not object to it. She said the family owns about 500 acres along Route 1 in Foxborough, giving them a number of options.

“They’re good businessmen, and I think they’d be crazy not to evaluate whether it had any merit with them, and their core business is entertainment,’’ Wason said. “It’s the stadium. It would seem to be a not incompatible use.’’

Paicos said he suspected that the casino developers who contacted him had also contacted the Krafts about buying or leasing their property, but added that he had no direct knowledge.

James did not say whether the Kraft Group had been contacted by casino developers.

The proposed zoning change would have allowed a conference center, hotel, and casino on lots of at least 50 acres along Route 1, a description that would fit only the Krafts’ property.

The property across from Gillette has a historic link to gambling. It was a harness racing facility when family patriarch Robert Kraft purchased it in 1985. James said Kraft had always opposed the track owner’s vision for slot machines on the facility. He and the track’s owner, Charles Sarkis, had a very public dispute before the track shut down in 1997.

The Globe reported in 1994 that Kraft’s associates had a meeting with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to discuss the possibility of putting a casino next to the stadium, if the tribe wins the right to open a slots facility. James said Friday that those talks were initiated by Governor William Weld, who at the time was trying to get a new stadium built. But the single meeting did not result in further negotiations.

The NFL’s rules against team ownership of a casino would seem to be the Krafts’ biggest hurdle. Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of corporate communications, confirmed that NFL owners are not allowed under league rules to own a casino. The league also warns its players to stay away from gamblers and gambling activity.

But McCarthy said in e-mails that the league has no specific policy barring a team from leasing property to a casino developer. He also said it has no specific policy regarding casinos locating near its stadiums. In either case, the league would need to review the situation.

He said he did not know of any inquiries the Krafts had made to the league.

Though the NFL is skittish about any associations with gambling, it has relaxed its policy in at least one respect in recent years, allowing NFL teams two years ago to license lottery tickets. The Patriots were the first team to sign a deal with the state lottery.

The Kraft family has been developing the area for years. In addition to the stadium, the Kraft Group built Patriot Place, a 1.3 million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex adjacent to the stadium. The group is also pursuing a permanent commuter rail link, and a pedestrian bridge to connect their properties now bisected by Route 1.

The state has designated the property across from the stadium as a growth district, targeting it as one of a handful of sites that can accommodate a significant development. The Krafts say they have spent millions of dollars on permitting and other work that would make it shovel ready.

But Paicos, the town manager, said the reaction of the Foxborough Board of Selectmen, which voted 5 to 0 against bringing the zoning change to Town Meeting last month, had stalled any talk of casinos for now. “There is still the possibility that they may come before the Board of Selectmen to have some further discussion about it,’’ he said.

But Paicos added, “I can’t find one person who’s in favor.’’

It appears, Paicos said, that the “community’s appetite to host large venues . . . has pretty much reached the limits of the town’s endurance.’’

Still, he agrees with Selectman Mark S. Sullivan that developers could come back with a more concrete plan, if Patrick signs a casino bill, There’s a difference, they said, between being asked a hypothetical question and seeing a concrete proposal.

Sullivan recalled that Town Meeting rejected a meals tax two years in a row and then approved it on the third try. “Sometimes, it just keeps coming back,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.