By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — With little information and an extremely tight time-frame, town officials are scrambling to find out more about the proposed Tewksbury casino and what they can do to assess its impact on the community.
Town Planner Paul Materazzo met with Selectmen Thursday morning to go over an action plan on the Merrimack Valley Casino, proposed for an 8-acre tract of land just over the Tewksbury border near the junction of Route 133 and Interstate-495.
Selectmen are particularly concerned what impact a 1,250-slot casino would have on local roads.
“People drinking free booze all day and leaving the casino and taking a right” turn onto Route 133, said Selectman Mary Lyman, would put them right into Andover, imperiling local drivers while also putting a strain on public safety.
Materazzo said he’s having a hard time assessing the impact on traffic because there’s so little information available from the casino developer, Penn National Gaming Inc.
He said he spoke with Steve Sadwick, the director of planning for Tewksbury, who told him he “didn’t have all the details relating to the project” and that it’s still a “fluid process.”
The traffic consultant working on the project said pretty much the same thing.
Town Manager Reginald ‘Buzz’ Stapczyinski is insisting that Andover conduct its own traffic study while also paying for a peer review of any traffic study done by the casino developer. But it’s difficult, said Materazzo, to review a study that doesn’t even exist yet.
“How do we do a scope of work when they don’t even know what the scope is?” he asked.
Town Counsel Tom Urbelis put it a little more bluntly.
“It’s garbage in garbage out,” he said. “They have not disclosed a lot of information upon which we can base the study. The traffic people don’t know the scope. The planning board doesn’t have the plans yet. That’s going to be a big obstacle for us moving forward.”
Making matters worse is that there is so little time to do a comprehensive review of the project.
“The timeframe is very short,” Materazzo said. The proposal is going before Tewksbury Town Meeting voters on Aug. 20. A townwide referendum is scheduled for Sept. 21. Penn National has a deadline of Oct. 4 to file a completed application to the state.
“We are being forced into negotiations by the state on a short time frame,” said Selectman Brian Major.
He said the town also needs to know the environmental impact of hundreds if not thousands of cars idling as they sit in huge traffic jams waiting to enter or exit the casino.
Materazzo said Penn National will have to conduct some kind of environmental review under the Mass. Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA.
Selectman Paul Salafia wanted to know if the project would have an impact on the town’s watershed.
Materazzo said the proposed casino location isn’t in the Haggetts Pond watershed but is very close to another watershed. He said he’d speak with the Andover Conservation Commission about that issue.
Dan Kowalski wanted to know the impact of future residential or commercial growth on the area and if that would be added into the equation.
He said if the $200 million casino is built at 300 Ames Pond Road as proposed, and other projects are proposed for the area, the impact on traffic would only worsen.
Major said he was also concerned about public safety.
“There is no police or fire station near the facility,” he said, meaning that in the event of an emergency, Andover would be called in for mutual aid.
While State Police would monitor the casino itself, it would be up to local police and fire to respond to accidents or incidents outside the boundaries of the casino.
Penn National announced earlier this week that if Tewksbury OKs the casino, it would give a $900 million grant to help the police and fire departments in that town.
In addition, under the host community agreement reached between Penn and Tewksbury, the town will receive $1 million dollars in annual mitigation payments and $120,000 dollars annually to fund capital expenditures. Coupled with an estimated $3 million dollars in annual tax revenue, the town is expected to receive over $4.1 million in annual revenue if the project is developed. The project is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent positions.
Andover, which has been designated a “bordering community,” may also be in line for mitigation money.
Materazzo said he would be speaking with local police and fire officials in the coming weeks to develop a “public safety scope and identify consultants to assist the town.”
He is also speaking with consultants to determine the impact of a slots-only casino on downtown businesses. RKG, a marketing firm used by the town in the past, will be looking at the impact of a casino on not just downtown businesses, but businesses throughout Andover.
“The idea of all this is to line up consultants so that once details become available, they’ll be ready to go,” he said.
Selectmen asked Materazzo to provide weekly reports via email to town officials.
A Tewksbury planning board meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night, during which Materazzo hopes additional information will be made available.