Somerville Files Appeal to Key Casino License,Likely to Create Delays for Wynn

 By Seth Daniel

The Wynn Everett casino has found another mayor with a bone to pick regarding the $1.7 billion resort casino – this time being Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.

Last Friday, Curtatone and his City filed a request for a hearing to challenge the state’s Chapter 91 waterways license that was just about to be awarded to the casino.

“It’s unfortunate that the Commonwealth’s gaming law leaves abutting communities heavily impacted by a casino project with few, if any, governmental remedies,” read an op-ed by Curtatone in the Somerville Times last week. “That left us no option but to seek legal remedies…The resolution of Boston’s lawsuit doesn’t change these legal concerns…Somerville’s lawsuits are looking to inject fairness and sanity into the process.”

And that decision to file the appeal of the license – which is a critical path to starting construction this May and could delay the start by six months to a year – has riled many, especially Wynn. Wynn had expected to receive notification of its Chapter 91 license in April, and last Friday was the last day for anyone to file an appeal in that process.

Speaking on Friday after learning of the suit, Wynn officials said Curtatone’s decision was “selfish” and castigated him for wasting the time of numerous state officials and for delaying much-needed construction jobs.

“Mayor Curtatone, in a selfish, blatant attempt to politicize this issue for his own benefit, has filed this challenge to our environmental permit,” read a statement by Michael Weaver, of Wynn Resorts. “His action is shallow and obvious. The Mayor demonstrates his disrespect for the exhaustive work done by many state agencies in issuing this permit by filing an appeal to further his own personal political ambition. If the Mayor has aspirations to run for higher office, perhaps he should at least try to learn to have more respect for the law that the legislature passed and a project that would bring to the Commonwealth an investment exceeding $1.7 billion, along with thousands of jobs. We find it necessary to call out this selfish politician, when so many jobs and real benefits are at risk.”

It wasn’t immediately able to be determined what the appeal will mean for the mitigation recently approved for Charlestown in terms of the $2 million annual payment and the $1 million existing check sitting in City Hall. Also, mitigation payments made towards traffic planning and solutions in Charlestown could also be held up along with the mitigation monies.

Charlestown State Rep. Dan Ryan said he understands Somerville’s frustration, but felt now wasn’t the time for municipalities to act alone.

“I completely understand the City of Somerville’s frustration with major developments in our area,” said State Rep. Dan Ryan. “I stare at the ever looming Assembly Row parking garage every morning. But, I also see the bigger picture. Yes, Wynn casino will bring many cars and bright lights. But, gaming revenue will also clean up the most neglected river in Massachusetts while subsidizing the infrastructure improvements needed to mitigate the impacts of Assembly Row, Lower Broadway and Union Square. Our communities are slowly building a beachhead of cooperation on the banks of the Mystic. True environmental justice is in our grasp. Now is not the time for cities to start working in isolation again. That recipe has historically hurt us in the past”.

Resident Lynne Levesque, who has been a frequent critic of the casino, said she supported Somerville’s challenge in order to make sure the casino adhered to all of the environmental regulations.

“It probably goes without saying that I support Somerville’s Chapter 91 appeal and fully appreciate Somerville Mayor Curtatone’s efforts to get critical environmental concerns regarding the Wynn casino addressed,” she said. “The issues of increased pollution and consequent damage to residents’ well-being, quality of life, health and environment – for Somerville residents as well as those of us in Charlestown – have not been resolved…It’s very unfortunate that Wynn’s representatives have to resort to ad hominem attacks on the [Somerville] Mayor, who is only doing his job, instead of working to address his legitimate, well-founded concerns. The benefits to our communities that will come from resolution of these environmental issues in the long run far outweigh any costs of delay.”

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, who recently made peace with Wynn Everett, had no comment on the Somerville matter. A spokesperson said he was only glad to have reached an agreement that protects Charlestown and that he would let Somerville and Wynn work out their differences alone.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which issues Chapter 91 waterways licenses, said they had no opinion on the appeal, and would set up a process according to the law.

“Consistent with the practices for the handling of any Chapter 91 project appeal, MassDEP will review the appeal, bring the parties together to adjudicate the issues raised in the appeal, and work in a timely manner to address the issues contained within the appeal,” said Ed Coletta, MassDEP spokesman.

DEP will now assign a hearing officer from the Office of Appeals and Dispute Resolution. That officer will set up a timeframe as to when the pre-hearing conferences and hearings will be held, much like in a court proceeding. That hearing officer will review information submitted and can ask for more information.

The first step will be to bring the parties together and try to reach a settlement. If that cannot be done, the case will go to a hearing before the hearing officer. Once all parties are heard in that hearing process, the hearing officer will make a recommended final decision on the appeal and provide that to the Commissioner of DEP.

It will be up to the Commissioner of DEP to issue a final decision on that appeal. That process outlined above can take anywhere between six months to one year.

In the appeal filed on Friday, Feb. 12, Somerville has asked that the DEP’s Written Determination be vacated and sent back to consider all of the points brought up in Somerville’s appeal – including the issuance of an extended license for 85 years instead of the usual 30.

“Should the Written Determination be reissued after such consideration, it should contain specific changes to address, among other things, a reduction of the license term, an increase in public amenities, and the public safety concerns with respect to the increased water transportation and other impacts on Somerville resulting from the Casino,” it read.

In the Somerville Times op-ed, Curtatone explains there are four lawsuits by Somerville still pending against the casino – including an appeal of the Municipal Harbor Plan, the height of the Wynn building and an appeal of the license award against the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Most importantly, though, seems to be the traffic impacts and health impacts from traffic that Curtatone sites.

“When we put together the Assembly Row project, we went through a far more extensive environmental review,” he wrote. “On top of that, we addressed regional traffic concerns by adding the Assembly Square MBTA stop along the Orange Line to make it transit-oriented development, improving direct highway access and completely redesigning the road network inside Assembly Square in order to pull traffic more efficiently off of regional roadways. The Gaming Commission awarded a license before similar, necessary steps were taken with the Wynn casino. Simply put, the cart got put before the horse.”

And on the topic of pollution, he wrote, “The Wynn casino readily admits 18,000 people per day will be driving to its site, choking local roadways and pumping tons of extra exhaust into the air we breathe…Our contention is that MEPA has not addressed the severity of these impacts, nor identified proper mitigations for them.”

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