Foxborough board rebuffs casino zoning changes
Heavy turnout by gambling foes
FOXBOROUGH - In a surprise move, the Foxborough Planning Board voted last night not to support two key zoning changes sought by
The board voted after more than 500 people turned out at a middle school last night, with most demanding that local officials heed earlier pleas to bar a casino from opening on Kraft property near Gillette Stadium. It was the first public meeting since Kraft announced that he was teaming up with Wynn on a resort proposal.
The zoning changes would have accommodated an indoor-outdoor entertainment facility and multifamily dwellings and would have increased allowable building heights to as much as 300 feet. The zoning changes did not explicitly mention casinos.
Planning Board members said they wanted to delay action because it is clear now that the zoning changes could help pave the way for a casino. They said the Kraft-Wynn team should return with their proposal after the first of the year.
“We have and will continue to have a relationship with the Krafts, but not everything that comes down the pike is appropriate,’’ said Kevin Weinfeld, chairman of the Planning Board. “If we are going to consider it, we will need a very specific proposal and zoning that addresses it.’’
The Planning Board meeting was an opening skirmish in what could be a long battle between vigorous casino opponents and the Kraft Group, which owns the stadium and the land around it. The Kraft Group did not speak at the meeting last night and appeared to downplay the significance of the board’s decision afterward.
“We didn’t have anything on the agenda for tonight’s meeting and therefore didn’t attend, so I don’t have enough information to comment at this time,’’ Stacey James, spokesman for The Kraft Group, said late last night.
Residents from the neighboring communities of Walpole and Norfolk joined casino opponents from Foxborough to urge the board to reject the zoning changes.
“Can we make this a dry town as far as gambling goes?’’ said Alan Sweeney, a Foxborough resident.
Walpole town administrator Mike Boynton added: “The town of Walpole urges you and pleads with you to look at the real consideration of human lives of the folks who live on the border of Foxborough.’’
Kraft and Wynn announced late last week that they were working on a deal allowing Kraft to lease Wynn property so he could bid on a $1 billion casino proposal authorized under the state’s new expanded gambling law.
The town’s support is crucial. Zoning changes need to go through at least two local governing bodies and then need support from two-thirds of residents at a Town Meeting. The state’s casino legislation also requires a local ballot referendum before any developer can win a casino license.
On Monday, Kraft and Wynn promised that they would retreat if the town opposed a casino, insisting they would build a project in keeping with Foxborough’s “bucolic’’ setting and pledging to create thousands of jobs.
But the Board of Selectmen voted 5 to 0 in September against a zoning change that would have allowed construction of casinos on property the Kraft Co. owns across from Gillette Stadium.
Before news of the casino plan leaked out, residents were expecting Kraft to build a biotech park at the site. Planning Board officials said they were not aware of the casino until late last week, when reporters began calling about the plan.
“I don’t want anyone to think that all along we’ve known and that they’ve known that this was about a casino; that is not fact,’’ Weinfeld told last night’s audience.
Weinfeld said that Kraft and the Patriots have pumped money into the local economy and that property owners have a right to develop their land, so long as they comply with the law. But, he said, gambling is not legal in the town.
“We feel pretty good with them coming forward,’’ Weinfeld said. “They have a couple of billion invested in our town. If they do things that are perceived as appropriate in our community, they will get a return on their investment.’’
Not all the speakers last night were against the proposal.
“These are the worst economic times of my 77 years,’’ said Roslyn Liftman of Foxborough. “We have the chance to have a money tree in our backyard.’’
But the crowd’s sentiment was clearly against the casino proposal. “Mr. Kraft, don’t gamble with our kids future,’’ said one sign.
The Kraft-Wynn team had asked the Planning Board earlier yesterday to delay official debate of the zoning changes on yesterday’s agenda. Though the two zoning changes were turned back, the Planning Board agreed to keep discussing a third that would allow wind turbines on the property.
Before last night’s meeting, several dozen protesters held signs outside the school and accepted donations in a piggy bank for the cause.
Stephanie Crimmins said life changed when she woke up last Friday and saw the news of a casino. “The town has said no three times to this, and we thought it had gone away,’’ she said. With the two powerful businessmen behind the plan, she said, “I said, ‘Oh my god, we have to take a stand!’ ’’
Earlier this week, an opposition group officially formed and organized under the name No Foxboro Casino. The group says it has gathered more than 1,200 supporters through written and online petitions and social networking.
Meanwhile, Kraft, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of the Kraft Group, was in New York Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with fellow NFL owners.
It remains unclear whether the league would object to Kraft’s plan to lease his property to Wynn, who would own and operate the casino.
Kraft has said it would not violate NFL rules, but the league is skittish about associations with gambling.
James, Kraft’s spokesman, said in an e-mail that the NFL meetings are regularly scheduled and that he was not aware of any discussions related to the casino proposal.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail that this week’s gatherings were committee meetings and that full league meetings would take place in Dallas next week. Casinos, he said, were not on the agenda either this week or next.
But at the state level, casino opponents were dealt a setback yesterday. Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that an effort to repeal the new casino law through a ballot referendum is not legal because the state constitution bars referendums on appropriations. The casino bill falls into this category because it sets aside $15 million to start a gambling commission and $500,000 for a division of gambling enforcement.
In Foxborough, the new opposition group already has the Kraft Group’s attention with a letter detailing demands, written by organizer Collin Earnst, a marketing professional who has lived in the town for eight years.
“We’re spending our holiday season worrying about how our town will be changed drastically if this happens,’’ Earnst said before last night’s meeting. “We’re no longer in control of our town. This is a difficult thing for someone to swallow.’’
Another Kraft spokesman, Jeff Cournoyer, responded in an e-mail to Earnst, which he shared with the Globe.
“The process will provide residents with the opportunity to hear as complete a proposal as possible - including information on jobs, revenues and how a resort would complement the character of the town - and then vote on it through a ballot referendum,’’ Cournoyer wrote.