Concord casino plans reluctantly approved by Planning Board members with no more public input
|Published: 06-27-2023 6:52 PM
Planning board members approved a new casino on Loudon Road this week after applicant Andy Sanborn forced a vote despite a lack of notice of a public hearing.
“I just want everyone to be aware that this was not on the agenda for a public hearing and members of the public were specifically told that there would be no public hearing and chose not to come tonight,” Concord City Planner Heather Shank told the board. “I think that’s a concern.”
The casino proposal, which has been before the board for months, faced opposition from some neighbors and residents who were concerned that it would lead to an increase in crime and overwhelm the city’s emergency services. The board wanted Sanborn to conduct a detailed study projecting emergency calls if the project was approved.
At the meeting last month, the board determined Sanborn failed to produce an adequate emergency services assessment. The board’s decision to continue the public hearing required Sanborn to hire a third-party consultant. The city chose a consultant and signed a contract last Friday, five days before Wednesday’s meeting.
Instead, Sanborn presented the results of a new emergency services report from a different consultant, which handed to the board members in the form of paper copies at the meeting. City staff was unaware of Sanborn’s intentions until 4:30 p.m. that day, just hours before the meeting.
“At no point did they let us know they were doing this,” Shank said. “At no point did they say ‘hey staff we’re going to go ahead with out own thing and we want to present it.’”
“It’s a little bit of an ambush,” said Planning Board Chair Richard Woodfin.
The data showed the first phase of the casino would generate around 110 police calls annually, or two calls a week; 14 fire calls; and 40 EMS calls, according to Mark Fougere, president of Fougere Planning & Development out of Milford. Those calls are expected to increase to 130 police calls, 17 fire calls and 47 for EMS once phase two of the project was completed. Fougere based his analysis of emergency calls to other gaming venues, including Boston Billiards in Nashua, the Brook in Seabrook, the Lakes Region Casino in Belmont and the Oxford Casino in Maine.
“Looking at what the impact might be on the community, this gives you a window into what that might look like,” he said. “This project is going to provide economic opportunity on Loudon Road. You’re looking at a decrease in value in that neighborhood with the mall losing around $70 million in the last 15 years, which is $1.5 million in tax revenue. This project will help fill that void and it does not generate a large amount of calls.”
However, board members questioned the presentation and the sourcing of the information.
“This has gone from a 90 page report to one page,” Woodfin said.
Fougere said he’d provide any additional documentation the board wanted.
“Some people present reams of paper,” he said. “I try to get to the point.”
Still, the board had reservations.
“I’m not comfortable with applicants bringing information before the board during the meeting and expecting us to make a decision,” agreed board member Jeffrey Santacruce. “This started at the public level and now, here we are, expected to make a decision without allowing staff or the public to absorb it and ask comments and questions themselves.”
Sanborn expressed frustration with the board’s delays and said he did not agree to continuing the application process any further.
“I have worked very hard to give you everything you’ve asked for and this is the third month in a row we’re here tonight debating what the numbers are,” Sanborn said. “This is not part of the planning board’s process and you said by the next meeting, you wanted to see this information.”
Ahead of the board meeting, at least six members of the public contacted the planning department asking about a public hearing regarding the casino and were told it would be heard in August, Shank said. She based that answer on the fact that a different consultant had just been hired to conduct the study.
“I can’t in good conscience be asked to render judgment without opening up the information you presented to the public and the staff and let them digest it and give them a chance to come up and tell us what they think,” said Woodfin.
Though many agreed with Woodfin’s assessment, Sanborn asked for a vote.
“I think my project, politely, is being picked on,” Sanborn said. “I’d love to get your support and your approval and if you want something, you can ask me and I’ll give it to you and we’ll make it happen.”
Despite some board member’s hesitation to do so without the public’s input, the application was granted conditional approval in a 4-2 vote with one abstention.
“I need to hear from the public,” said Woodfin, one of the two votes against the project. “I’m not comfortable at all moving forward until I’ve at least got public testimony to rely on.”
Per the conditions of approval, applicant Sanborn, who owns the Draft Sports Bar and Grill and the Concord Casino, will be required to meet a list of conditions within the year, which include submitting a traffic signalization plan and providing sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and connections on Loudon Road.
If those conditions are met, building permits will be granted and site construction will begin. Otherwise, Sanborn and his team will have to appear before board to request an extension. The City Council is not required to hear the plans or make decisions regarding charitable gaming or the proposed development.
The first phase of the project includes a 24,000-square-foot gaming room with 634 seats and an 8,500-square-foot restaurant and brewpub that can hold up to 150 diners. The new building would be located near the intersection of Loudon and Sheep Davis roads close to Interstate 393 off Break O’Day Drive. The second phase of the project calls for a hotel and event center.
“We’re excited, as we have been through the entire process,” Sanborn said by phone Friday. “We think this is good for the community, good for the residents, good for the local charities and we think everyone wins with this opportunity.”