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Court ruling gives Finger Lakes casino opponents fresh hope 8 months after site recommendation

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ALBANY, New York — Eight months after a small Finger Lakes farm town was recommended for one of three New York casino licenses, the battle over the $425 million development is ratcheting up again.

A recent appeals court ruling involving state environmental review law has suspended site construction in Tyre, between Rochester and Syracuse along the Thruway. Lago Resort & Casino supporters say the ruling was based on a procedural misstep that is being addressed by restarting the review.

But local casino opponents see the town's do-over as another chance to push for a broader environmental review, this time with funding for lawyers from Lago's competitors.

"The process has to be redone, it is a New York state-mandated process that must be done properly. And now we have eyes on it," said Desiree Dawley, a member of Casino Free Tyre.

Lago was recommended for a casino license by a state siting board in December along with the Montreign Resort Casino in the Catskills and the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady. Final license decisions could come from the state this fall.

The Lago proposal — with its tony hotel, slots and fine dining — has the enthusiastic backing of local officials and trade unions. They see more than 1,800 permanent jobs, tax reductions and a contemporary attraction that will draw millions of tourists to this thinly populated corner of the Finger Lakes.

With about 900 people, Tyre's prominent features now are a Thruway truck stop and the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. It's the sort of modest, rural town where the supervisor works from a spare room at home and one judge holds court at a converted dog kennel.

"We need this project," Supervisor Ronald McGreevy said. "We just can't continue to go the way we're going."

Dawley, who lives next to the Lago site, said there are many residents, including the local Amish community, concerned that the outsized development would ruin the town's rural character.

PHOTO: FILE--In this Dec. 17, 2014 file photo, Thomas Wilmot Sr. of Lago Resort & Casino smiles after learning the Gaming Facility Location Board recommended them for a Southern Tier casino license in Albany, N.Y.  Eight months after a small Finger Lakes farm town was recommended for one of three New York casino licenses, the battle over the $425 million development is ratcheting up again.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
FILE--In this Dec. 17, 2014 file photo, Thomas Wilmot Sr. of Lago Resort & Casino smiles after learning the Gaming Facility Location Board recommended them for a Southern Tier casino license in Albany, N.Y. Eight months after a small Finger Lakes farm town was recommended for one of three New York casino licenses, the battle over the $425 million development is ratcheting up again. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

Opponents notched a win last month when a state appeals court faulted the way the town board determined that the project would have no significant adverse environmental impacts. The court said the board in 2014 failed to provide a clear, written record for its "negative declaration" and voided the site plan approval.

So now the town is repeating its environmental work from last year, including a series of board meetings.

"We're doing everything possible to follow the letter of the law, which we did last year," McGreevy said.

Board members could consider whether to issue another negative declaration by mid-September. The declaration would mean there was no need for a potentially complex environmental impact statement to be prepared, clearing the way for a state license this fall.

Opponents want an impact statement prepared, believing it would highlight issues being ignored by local leaders. That's why Casino Free Tyre recently submitted to the town a 400-page letter drafted by an international law firm contending Lago would impact Tyre's rural character, water quality, wildlife and even the safety of the Amish riding their buggies.

Don Earle, chairman of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors, said opponents are trying to dredge up technical points as part of a "last-ditch effort."

But while some local officials have dismissed of points in the legal letter, they do see an issue in the outside groups who paid for it.

Dawley said opponents sought out funding for the legal fight from the Oneida Indian Nation and Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack, both of which would compete with Lago for customers, after they ran low on resources.

The Finger Lakes track, 25 miles from the Lago site, had its own lawsuit against Lago's selection dismissed this month. The Oneidas, who run the Turning Stone Resort Casino east of Syracuse, have asked state gaming officials to disqualify Lago.

Dawley said they needed the legal experts in to counter the lawyers and lobbyists hired by Thomas Wilmot Sr., the Rochester-based developer behind Lago.

"They have all the money," she said.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: FILE--In this Dec. 17, 2014 file photo, Thomas Wilmot, Sr., speaks with reporters after an announcement that his Lago Resort & Casino proposal was chosen during a meeting of the Gaming Facility Location Board in Albany, N.Y. Eight months after a small Finger Lakes farm town was recommended for one of three New York casino licenses, the battle over the $425 million development is ratcheting up again.  (AP Photo/Tim Roske, File)
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