By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
TIVERTON, R.I. — Designs are being altered to reflect environmental concerns for the proposed casino but not all ecological information will be available before Election Day.
The Twin River Management Group (TRMG) has so far reduced the footprint of its parking areas to increase a wetland buffer. And a bridge will be built across swampland to allow for wildlife migration.
“While our first site plan and design honored the wildlife and wetlands on the property, we were asked to do better, so we did,” said John Taylor, TRMG chairman.
A brook and wetland corridor run directly through the 48-acre wooded tract in the northern-most portion of Tiverton, several hundred feet from the border with Fall River, Mass. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) requires a wetlands alteration plan from the developer that details plans to minimize damage to the oak-forest-and-swamp habitat and shows how stormwater runoff will be managed.
TRMG said it intends to submit its wetland plan to DEM if Tiverton voters approve the casino (Question 8) and voters statewide also approve the project (Question 1).
DEM has, so far, suggested that TRMG build a parking garage to help reduce runoff flowing into the surrounding wetlands. It’s not clear if the altered plans include a garage.
Visually, TRMG intends to keep the height of the structures below the tree line so that the facility isn't visible from the road.
TRMG also has promised that the casino wouldn't affect local water supplies and nearby reservoirs that supply water to Tiverton, Portsmouth and Fall River. A four-season review of wildlife identifies and maps the site and surrounding 250 acres for rare and unique mammals, amphibians and birds.
The casino and other buildings will be concentrated at the highest elevation to avoid the shrub swamp and wildlife migration areas. TRMG said it would build arch-culverts and bridges to accommodate wildlife movement.
Local resident Cameron Ramsay of the opposition group No Tiverton Casino said wetland and water issues remain a concern until all the approvals are met. The site, Ramsay said, has no existing infrastructure to addresses environmental concerns, so there are too many unanswered environmental impacts.
"This is not an office park, this is a wetland," Ramsay said.
Sucker Brook is one of the more complicated issues related to the proposal. The modest waterway runs from Stafford Pond, a 478-acre reservoir, across the casino site and north to South Watuppa Pond in Fall River. A complicated history of water rights, which includes Tiverton once belonging to Massachusetts, has determined that the water in Sucker Brook belongs to Fall River.
In 2015, as plans for the casino were announced, the Fall River Herald News reported that Sam Sutter, then mayor of Fall River, wanted assurances that the city’s interest in Sucker Brook would be protected. Current Mayor Jasiel Correia II and the city planner didn't respond to inquiries about the city’s current stance on the matter.
Tiverton town administrator Matthew Wojcik said he was surprised that Fall River showed interest in a brook that runs under a residential neighborhood once it crosses into Fall River. But he expects that future environmental reports hold answers to this and other issues.
“I hope the study addresses it,” he said.
Social-justice issues are also a concern for Ramsay. The project is being billed as a “convenience casino” suited for short driving times and stays. Destination casinos, however, like Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut draw patrons from greater distances and offer more activities to spend money during their stay.
Ramsay said the Tiverton casino will attract patrons who stand the most to lose, such as residents from four nearby nursing homes and low-income neighborhoods.
“The clientele is not the high-end gambler,” Ramsay said. “It’s the elderly and impoverished.”
If built, the Tiverton casino would be about a quarter the size of the Twin River Casino in Lincoln. Initial plans are to open with 1,000 slot machines and 32 table games in a gambling hall with designated smoking areas. The campus would include up to four restaurants and a 3-story hotel. Parking lots will have 1,300 total spaces.
If the Twin River Casino serves as a guide, however, it’s likely that whatever is built in Tiverton will grow at the expense of undeveloped land and perhaps nearby wetlands. Legislation passed by the General Assembly allowed the one-time greyhound racetrack to became a video poker parlor. The facility soon added table games, a music venue, a hotel and an unapproved parking lot. Not long after the new Twin River Casino opened, the hours of operation were extended to 24 hours a day. It’s one of the few public venues in the state to allow indoor smoking.