Thursday, December 5, 2013
The Oxford Casino remained open Monday, despite a judge's ruling that nullified a state permit needed for it to operate.
An artist's rendering of what the Oxford Casino would look like if all three phases of construction are completed.
How long the casino will remain open is unclear.
The fate of the casino and its related businesses was in question Monday as officials from the state Attorney General's Office and the Department of Environmental Protection met to discuss the implications of the Superior Court decision.
The DEP has 21 days to appeal the ruling. If it does not appeal, the casino will be operating without a permit, which opponents claim is illegal.
Steve Hinchman, attorney for the Androscoggin River Alliance and a group of residents who fought the siting of the casino and the decision to grant a permit for its first phase, said state law "expressly prohibits" the casino from operating without a permit.
"The judge's order vacates the permit (and) remands the permit back to the DEP," Hinchman said. Without a valid permit in place, he added, "they're going to have to close their doors." Hinchman said he will seek an injunction, if necessary, to stop the casino's operations, if the Superior Court ruling is not appealed and the establishment continues to do business.
DEP officials declined to be interviewed about the ruling but issued a written statement saying the department "has no intention to pursue any closing of the casino, nor would past precedent indicate it would be appropriate to do so."
DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren expressed the department's disappointment with the ruling, which marks another chapter in the nearly year-and-a-half-long struggle for permitting approval for the casino.
"While we do not agree with the findings and stand behind our staff's thorough and thoughtful initial review," she wrote, the department "will act in accordance with the remand order and reopen the review process so that other available evidence that could be relevant can be additionally considered."
The judge's ruling sends the permit request back to the Board of Environmental Protection, a panel of gubernatorial appointees that makes rules for the agency and acts on major projects reviewed by DEP staff. How long the review might take was not immediately known.
The latest tussle over the casino's future -- as it exists now or under planned expansion -- resulted from the ruling last week by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy. She found in favor of the alliance, which argued that the BEP failed to comply with department permitting regulations for multi-phase projects. The regulations require that a permit for any phase of a project be approved only after reviewing all available evidence on the cumulative effects of the entire project.
The judge ruled that the BEP should not have granted the permit for the first phase of the project because such development projects cannot be segmented into smaller pieces in order to pass regulatory requirements.
"The Court is troubled," Murphy wrote, "by the fact that the agency decision on appeal did not directly address" the issue of "compliance of the entire proposed development."
The Attorney General's Office also declined to be interviewed Monday and instead responded in a written statement saying that state officials are reviewing the Superior Court decision and will abide by its directives.
"While we are disappointed in the ruling and felt that the DEP and the Board of Environmental Protection acted properly, " the statement continued, "we think it is important to note that the Superior Court did not find that the Oxford Casino in its present form poses any threat to the environment or violates any environmental laws or regulations."
"Instead, the Superior Court has directed the DEP to review evidence that might have been submitted" by developers about "undefined, future phases of development and to determine if that future development meets the standards" of Maine regulations and law.
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