Suffolk Pols Nix Bill Opposing Medford Casino Plan

Video Lottery Terminals, like these, may be coming to Islandia

Suffolk County lawmakers rejected a bill on Tuesday that would have required the three-member Suffolk Off-Track Better Corp. board to get the Brookhaven town board’s approval before the OTB builds a planned mini-casino in Medford.

Seven county legislators voted for the proposal, while 10 members of the 18-member panel voted against it during a meeting in Riverhead. Opposing lawmakers said revenue and jobs that the facility would create outweigh neighbors’ fears of increased traffic and crime. Those favoring the bill said that New York State law requires host municipalities to pass resolutions supporting plans to build such facilities—but the state Gaming Commission, which regulates gambling facilities, denied that assertion.

“There needs to be a local process,” said Majority Leader Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), who proposed the bill. He noted that he is not opposed to building the facility. But he took issue with the OTB moving forward despite the Brookhaven town board having passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the Medford location.

The fight comes as the Nassau Off-Track Betting Corp. searches for a location for an equivalent facility—1,000 video lottery terminals (VLT), aka slot machines—after the agency bowed to public opposition and scrapped plans to build a gaming parlor in the shuttered Fortunoff in Westbury. Before the Westbury plan imploded, the Democratic minority in the GOP-controlled Nassau County Legislature had proposed a bill to replace the OTB board, but Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) refused to consider it for a vote. Calarco’s proposal stopped short of firing the Suffolk OTB board.

In Suffolk, the OTB bought a 31-acre vacant lot—the site of a former movie theater—for $10 million on the Long Island Expressway service road. The agency plans to build an estimated $40-million, nearly 100,000-square-foot parlor. It is currently in the traffic-study phase and hopes to get state approval to open by next year. The facility would have one-fifth as many games as Resort World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the only so-called racino on geographic Long Island.

Last week New York State Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown) proposed a bill that would rescind authorization for Nassau and Suffolk OTBs to build such facilities—authorization that voters had granted in a 2013 referendum. Hundreds of residents also recently spoke out against the plan at a meeting held by Medford civic groups that oppose OTB’s project.

“OTB has put the cart before the horse,” MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organizations, wrote in a letter urging lawmakers to vote for Calarco’s bill. “OTB lacks the basic approvals to move the VLT project forward.”

OTB officials maintain that they are following the law and that the issues neighbors say the gaming parlor may cause in their community would be mitigated by security measures.

“We are going to do our level best to minimize any problems in any area,” said Phil Nolan, president of the Suffolk OTB, which is emerging from bankruptcy. “We are trying to be as good neighborly as we can.”

Lee Park, a spokesman for the state Gaming Commission, said that the Suffolk OTB is not subject to local zoning laws since the proposed VLT facility is treated as an OTB branch under state law, not a full-fledged casino, such as those upstate that do require host municipalities to pass resolutions supporting them.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), a former Suffolk OTB worker, urged lawmakers to oppose Calarco’s bill. As an alternative, he proposed creating a citizens’ advisory committee on the Medford plan to ensure that their concerns are addressed.

“Whether you like it or not, we’re in the casino business,” said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), who voted against the bill after noting that multiple Atlantic City casinos have recently closed because nearby states such as New York have begun opening their own—indicating that New Yorkers prefer gambling close to home.

“The hard reality is that this is going to be built,” he said. To a mix of cheers and boos, he added: “And there’s a high probability it will be built in Medford.”