Group Fights Casino in Upstate New York

     TROY, N.Y. (CN) - Opponents of a plan to put a Vegas-style casino near Albany want a crucial local resolution of support thrown out because it was adopted contrary to provisions of New York's open meetings and environmental review laws.
     Save East Greenbush Inc., a grassroots group fighting the siting of a casino in its town, sued the town, the state and the proposed casino's backers in Rensselaer County Supreme Court.
     The group wants the local resolution annulled due to the East Greenbush Town Board's "willful defiance" of the open meetings law and its "failure to take a 'hard look'" at the project's potential social, economic and environment impacts on the rural bedroom community southeast of Albany.
     New York voters last fall approved a constitutional amendment to allow Las Vegas-style gambling in the state. The amendment authorized seven casinos, but only four will be licensed initially, all of them outside the metropolitan New York City area.
     The four will be sited upstate in three regions: the Albany area of eastern New York, the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes region near Binghamton, and the Catskills-Hudson Valley area north of New York City and its suburbs. The latter region is expected to see two casinos.
     After a rush of interest in the spring, followed by a winnowing of sites and operators, proposals for 17 casinos were submitted by the June 30 deadline set by the state: five in the Albany area, three in the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes and nine in the Catskills-Hudson Valley.
     A licensing board will review the proposals with an eye to granting approvals by early fall.
     The East Greenbush casino proposal comes from a partnership of Churchill Downs, operator of the namesake thoroughbred horse track in Louisville, Ky., and Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, owner of a "racino" in Saratoga Springs - a combination harness horse track and video slot machine hall. Churchill Downs also operates four U.S. casinos.
     Their $300 million proposal, dubbed Capital View Casino & Resort, would be just off a major east-west interstate. It would include a 300-room resort-style hotel, multiple entertainment venues, and 20,000 square feet of high-end retail, according to a news release from the partnership.
     Both partners are named as defendants in the Save East Greenbush lawsuit. The complaint says they helped orchestrate the local resolution of support that every casino developer needed to submit as part of its proposal to the state licensing board.
     The board is part of the New York State Gaming Commission, which also is a defendant.
     The complaint contends that representatives of the two companies met "independently with individual Town Board members so as not to meet with a quorum of the Town Board," a strategy that was "a deliberate and calculated attempt to manipulate the Open Meetings Law."
     The law, formally Section 100 of New York's Public Officers Law, requires that "the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy," according to the complaint.
     The complaint also alleges the Town Board skirted the law by scheduling a special meeting to approve the local resolution of support "in a room that was insufficient to accommodate the public."
     Before the meeting even started, the complaint claims, the town's building inspector stood up to declare the room had reached capacity. Save East Greenbush estimates at least 85 people were turned away.
     "The decision to allow casino gambling in a municipality and at a specific location is a major policy decision and a dramatic shift in the policy of the State of New York and the Town of East Greenbush," the complaint states. "The respondent Town Board made this decision in private at the behest of the casino operator. Never at a public meeting did the respondent Town Board deliberate the merits of permitting a casino to locate in the town of East Greenbush. Never at a public meeting did the respondent Town Board deliberate the merits of locating a casino on Thompson Hill road, Town of East Greenbush, Rensselaer County."
     The complaint claims the local resolution also ran afoul of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, which requires a detailed look at "projects or physical activities that may affect the environment by changing the use, including adoption of agency rules, procedures and resolutions that may affect the environment."
     Save East Greenbush contends that SEQRA requirements were triggered as early as May, when details on the casino were made public by Churchill Downs and Saratoga Gaming.
     The group pointed to local highway and wastewater infrastructure that it says could not accommodate a casino. The proposed site also contains wetlands and sits atop an aquifer; a high school, Girl Scouts camp and private school are nearby, the group says.
     "(A)greeing to the location of the gaming facility without first exploring any environmental concerns raised by the action is in clear violation of SEQRA," the complaint states.
     In addition to Save East Greenbush, the plaintiffs include four people who are members of the group and town taxpayers: Elizabeth A. Wade, Donald A. Johnson, and Dwight and Jennifer Jenkins, who live next door to the proposed site.
     They are represented by Jeffrey Meyer of Meyer & Fuller in Lake George.
     Also named as defendants are LAD Enterprises LLC and Greenbush GB Associates LLC, which are described as owning the land at the proposed casino site. The lawsuit says they are listed due to any contracts or options they may have with Churchill Downs and Saratoga Gaming.
     Morgan Hook, a spokesman for the casino developers, characterized the lawsuit as "silly and meritless" in an interview with the Albany Times Union.