Worried that they would appear to be supporting a proposal to allow slot machine gambling at Scarborough Downs, councilors last week backed off from a proposal to change zoning on the property.

The proposed zoning change is called for in the town’s comprehensive plan, and it would have little effect on either ushering slots into Scarborough or keeping them out.

But, given the highly charged atmosphere in town since Connecticut developer Gene Beaudoin laid the slots proposal on the table, councilors are concerned any move they make could be misinterpreted.

“I want to see next week what those newspapers say (about the Aug. 20 meeting),” said Councilor Michael Wood.

Although they believe the change would give the town more control over what happens at the Downs with regard to slots – not less – councilors also fear that it may appear they’re trying to accommodate Beaudoin’s every whim.

The town’s master plan envisions the track as a future town center, and calls for re-zoning the property from rural farm to “town and village center” to accommodate that development.

Changing the zoning would allow Beaudoin to construct the banks, office buildings and small storefronts not currently permitted in a rural farm area, in accordance with what residents said they wanted when the comprehensive plan was being developed.

The new zoning would not, however, allow any building big enough to house video gambling unless the Town Council creates a so-called “contract zone” similar to the one that allowed Beaudoin to construct the new Cabela’s outlet.

But perception can be everything – especially with an election looming – so councilors agreed to put off making a decision on the zoning change until their second September meeting.

According to council Chairman Jeff Messer, Scarborough Downs would have to go through a series of daunting reviews before it could ever hope to open a racino, regardless of whether the property is zoned rural or village center.

These include getting approval from the Legislature, from a steadfastly anti-gambling governor, from the majority of town voters and from the Town Council.

Beaudoin is circulating petitions to remove language from the rural farm zoning that expressly prohibits slots.

While the proposed town and village center zoning does not prohibit the activity of video gaming, it does ban buildings large enough to house even a small casino. Councilors say both zoning districts would effectively block slot machines unless council and voters change their minds.

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