SCARBOROUGH – The Scarborough Town Council is gambling that a zoning change will breath new life into the center of the sprawling municipality, but Scarborough Downs is betting on a last-minute amendment that opens the door for a casino.

The Council voted 5-0 Wednesday, Aug. 21, to create a new area called the “Crossroads Planned Development District” on 480 acres belonging to Scarborough Downs, the only property owner in the new zone. Under new rules for that area, developers could create as many as 40 housing units per acre in buildings up to six stories high.

Buildings are limited to 35 feet, or three stories, elsewhere in town. Previously, residential development was not allowed on the Down’s property, which was zoned as a business district.

According to Town Planner Dan Bacon, the idea behind the new zone is to encourage creation of a mixed-use village in the geographical heart of Scarborough, a town that lacks a Main Street center in the tradition of the typical New England village.

“This would be the broadest zone in town in terms of the range of issues that could occur,” Bacon has said of the new zone.

However, an amendment made to the zone broadens the possibilities further still.

By a 5-0 vote Councilors Ron Ahlquist and James Benedict were absent the Council acquiesced to a Downs’ request for an additional passage, stating that casino gambling would be allowed in the new zone, if approved by voters.

Ed MacColl, attorney for the Downs since 1989, made clear that while the Downs welcomes the zoning change, which it hopes will help it to sell hundreds of acres it has on the market, property owner Sharon Terry still believes expansion of gambling is the best means to secure survival of the venerable harness racing facility.

“This is, in the long run, something the Downs is going to have to have in order to survive,” he said.

But three former town councilors – Carol Rancourt, who is campaigning for a return to office this fall, Karen D’Andrea and Suzanne Foley-Ferguson – objected to what they deemed a “last-minute” change made at the Downs’ behest.

“I’m very concerned about due process,” said Rancourt. “I think we need to make sure the issue gets fully aired and that the Town Council is not ruling by fiat.”

Foley-Ferguson claimed local residents do not want a casino in town, noting that voters have twice denied an expansion of gambling to the track, while also voting against gambling measures in other parts of the state on three other occasions, despite the promise of revenue sharing from the proceeds.

“Education is too important to fund through gambling funds,” she said. “Don’t buy into the easy-money routine.”

Foley-Ferguson also deemed it unnecessary to write in a provision saying gambling would be allowed with voter approval, as that would be the process regardless. By making the amendment, she argued, Scarborough is ceding all momentum on the issue to the Downs, essentially smoothing the way for a future casino referendum.

Andrew Ingalls, a broker for CBRE The Boulos Company, argued that without the amendment, the Crossroads District zoning ordinance could be read as barring a casino outright, as the draft specifically limited gambling in the zone to betting on horses. That, he said, is why “what has happened is essentially nothing,” in his efforts to market parts of the property.

“All we are asking for is a piece in the zoning that doesn’t say, ‘No gaming,’” he said.

Meanwhile, Councilor Kate St. Clair acknowledged that the change does indeed “simplify” any future casino vote. With the amendment, she said, only a single vote to amend state law would be required, and not a second vote to also update local zoning.

D’Andrea argued that the gaming amendment was a big enough change to the zoning update since the first reading in July, that the entire proposal should go back to the Planning Board for further review.

While the council technically never ruled on whether or not the amendment was a substantive change, it found no reason to send the item back, largely because the gaming amendment was already considered earlier this year by both the Planning Board and the long-range planning committee.

“This has been talked about front and center for the better part of a year,” said Town Manager Tom Hall, on the question of sending the amendment back to the Planning Board. “It’s up to you. There’s no right or wrong. There’s no definitive answer.”

Councilor Judy Roy, acting as chairman Wednesday in Ahlquist’s absence, said that while the Planning Board and the long-range planning committee both declined to add the gaming provision earlier this year, they did so only out of political deference to the council, not because either objected to the measure.

“The long-range planning committee is advisory and they did not want to make a definitive stance, but certainly there was support,” she said. “Whether it goes back as a substantive change to the Planning Board I think is not necessary in that the people are going to have the final say.”

In the end, said Councilor Richard Sullivan said, further review would only delay the inevitable.

“It’s not going to change any minds on the council at this point,” he said.

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