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Panel to consider more time for Mass. casino talks

Bob Salsberg, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- Massachusetts gambling regulators said Thursday they would consider granting more time for deals to be struck between casino applicants and the cities and towns near the proposed sites of gambling facilities.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission made the offer after being told that with key deadlines approaching, there had yet to be a single surrounding community agreement reached with any city or town in the state.

The failure to complete such agreements required under the 2011 casino law could complicate the process of awarding licenses for a slots parlor and regional resort casinos, said John Ziemba, ombudsman for the commission.

"The lack of surrounding community agreements will hamper our review process, which is predicated upon a deep understanding of the impacts of these facilities and the measures applicants are taking to mitigate those concerns," Ziemba told commissioners, adding that he was skeptical that applicants would be able to meet the current timetable for concluding negotiations with nearby communities.

Companies competing for the states sole slots parlor license must submit final applications to the commission by Oct. 4, and applications for regional resort casinos in eastern and western Massachusetts are due at the end of the year.

Unlike host communities, surrounding communities do not have veto power over proposed gambling facilities, but they may be entitled to compensation for increased traffic or other impacts. In several cities and towns, opposition to casinos proposed for neighboring communities has become fierce, raising the likelihood of protracted and adversarial negotiations between developers and municipal officials.

Rules adopted earlier by the commission would allow surrounding community negotiations to continue for 30 days after the application deadlines. A city or town that believes it has been unfairly denied surrounding community status would also have 10 days to make its case to the commission.

The panel opted against moving back the application deadlines Thursday but said it would consider extending the period allowed for negotiations if it appeared that deals were not imminent.

The commission is also prepared to order binding arbitration if an applicant fails to reach an agreement with a surrounding community — or if officials in the community refuse to enter into talks.

"If parties are not going to negotiate in good faith, we have the power to step in arbitrate," said Stephen Crosby, chairman of the commission.

Commissioner James McHugh said relaxing the timetable for negotiations would also help reassure skeptical surrounding communities that they were not being pressured to accept unpopular terms.