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Tewksbury special town meeting defeats zoning change for proposed slots parlor

Posted by Your Town  August 20, 2013 09:56 PM

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Town officials said about 1,200 voters had checked in for Tuesday's Special Town Meeting. Photo: Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After 90 minutes of debate, Tewksbury tonight closed the door on the $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino proposed for 30 acres of commercial land off Route 133 near the Andover town line.

The vote was 995 yes, to 1,568 no. The measured required a 2/3 majority, or 1,709 votes to be adopted. A total of 2,617 residents attended the Special Town Meeting that would have allowed Penn National Gaming to build a 24-hour slots parlor on land now zoned for commercial/research use

Residents filled the gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium at Tewksbury Memorial High School for the Special Town Meeting.

Opponents erupted into woops and cheers as they stood in opposition to the zoning change that would have allowed Penn National Gaming to build a 24-hour slots parlor on land now zoned for commercial/research use.

More than a dozen residents spoke on the floor, many of them reading prepared remarks off Ipads and written notes.

They debated the merits of a proposal that town officials said would have generated $4 million in new revenues and taxes, along with the promise of 500 permanent jobs, in this town of nearly 30,000 in the Merrimack Valley.

Scott Consaul, a lawyer and former school committee member, called the zoning proposal "fools gold" that would open the door for the entire Ames Pond Corporate Center to be rezoned for expansion of a casino.

Resident Mark Johnson cited crime FBI crime statistics, which he said showed a 29 percent increase in crime in Bangor, Me., where Penn National operates a slots parlor. "Do we want to have more robberies in our town?" he asked.

But resident Charles Labella countered that the "plan to bring a casino to town is better than any other plan" before the town.

The zoning change had brought support from Tewksbury officials, winning favorable recommendations from the Board of Selectmen, finance committee and planning board.

"This is one step in the right direction to move the community forward," Selectman Chairman Scott Wilson said.

But voters could not be convinced. After a standing count, the zoning proposal failed to garner the 2/3 majority required by state law to be adopted.

The defeat was a major loss for organized labor, particularly the electrician's union Local 103 whose members held "Yes For Tewskbury" signs since Penn National first unveiled its proposal in early July.

Tewksbury police and fire unions also had endorsed the zoning plan, after Penn promised to donate $900,000 in grant funding for public safety.

After the vote, Eric Schippers, senior vice president of public affairs for Penn National Gaming said the message was clear.

"We respect the decision of the residents of Tewksbury," he said, standing in the gymnasium moments after the results were announced. "They spoke loud and clear and we respect that."

He said its "too soon to say" if Penn will look for other sites in Massachusetts. "We need to go back, and evaluate, what we want to do, if anything, in the Commonwealth."

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