Petition for local referendum on horse racing gains momentum in Great Barrington

Pam Youngquist, right foreground, assists a resident as she signs a home rule petition at the Great Barrington Farmers Market on Saturday. The petition calls for a special town meeting to vote on whether the town should hold an all-day voter referendum about the return of horse racing to the fairgrounds.

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A group opposed to a resurgence of thoroughbred horse racing at the fairgrounds is circulating a home rule petition that would give residents the legal right to weigh in on whether Suffolk Downs can reestablish a live racing operation here.

As of Saturday, Citizens Concerned About GB Horseracing had between 50 and 100 signatures, which they continued to collect from a booth at a bustling Great Barrington Farmers Market.

Pam Youngquist, a spokeswoman for the group, said they are aiming for 300 signatures for a petition that requires 200 to set a special town meeting in motion for the home rule legislation that would give residents an opportunity to vote about horse racing. The petition drive began at the market one week earlier, she added, and about 17 people are circulating it.

The petition cites a myriad of concerns held by the group's members. These include collateral damage from the sport — horse deaths and environmental problems — but also recent legislation that would allow the company to hold racing to Great Barrington while continue simulcasting and wagering in East Boston. Yet the bill, S.101, would also remove the possibility for residents to decide whether they want horse racing in town.

Another reason is an upswing in downtown traffic.

"The traffic is horrible," said Frances Kollman, who was collecting signatures. "And the size of the horse trailers on our small roads, which really can't handle it."

Kollman and others were handing out materials that said, for instance, that the racetrack would add 3,000 or more vehicles entering the fairground, based on the 1997 average daily attendance numbers of 5,500.

"To give perspective, that amount of people would more than fill the Tanglewood Shed," it says, citing from Elliott Morss' "The Economics of Tanglewood."

Opposition to racing at the fairgrounds has grown fierce since Suffolk Downs parent company, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse LLC, announced plans to refurbish the fairgrounds property, which has sat mostly dormant since the last races were held in 1998.

Having held its final racing days in June at its East Boston/Revere oval after it sold the property to a developer in 2017, the company searched and settled on the fairgrounds as the new home of thoroughbred racing in the state. Sterling Suffolk has an option for a long-term lease for the start of racing dates in fall 2020, but must wait for passage of new horse racing legislation that would allow the company to operate in two places at once.

This is hamstringing efforts — the company has not filed with the state for 2020 racing dates, for instance. Nor has it filed for local permits.

But that legislation, still in a committee, would not only restructure a number of elements of horse racing regulations, but also removes the possibility that a townwide voter referendum could be held on an operation that would have enormous support from the state's thoroughbred racing and gambling industry.

It was one Great Barrington town official's realization of this that sparked the opposition campaign in July, after a public hearing on the bill came and went without nary a voice from Town Hall.

State and local officials would soon be besieged by letters of outrage at what opponents say is a cruel sport that would also sully the town with gambling and a slurry of contamination that might flow into the Housatonic River, which the site abuts.

Sterling Suffolk officials say they've learned how to mitigate these problems after being cited by the federal Environmental Protection Agency nearly a decade ago for runoff issues in East Boston, and they promise to use those best practices at the fairground.

Yet outcry continued. And by mid-October, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, had taken his name off the bill, saying his initial co-sponsoring of it was as a protective measure for his own district. This had confused his efforts, in the public eye, with residents assuming he supported the project, despite what he says is his commitment to local control over what happens.

The legislation remains stuck in a committee, and the company is stalled. Opponents don't appear to want to take their chances, however, with a five-member board. But these petition efforts might be premature, say some.

"I'm not opposed to having a town meeting vote to decide this," said town Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon. "All of this is premature, because the legislation hasn't even gone out of committee yet, and we will have more than our chance to give our opinion."

Bannon also said that the town's own approval process is rigorous.

"Already there's a special permitting process in place that would require the Select Board to approve this," he added, noting that a special town meeting to decide whether to hold the townwide home rule vote comes at a cost of between $3,000 and $4,000.

Hinds couldn't be reached for comment. But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, agreed that the petition might be "jumping the gun." Yet he also said the special town meeting, or a regular town meeting, might be the only way legislators can know what the town wants.

He said whatever happens, the wording of the petition should be vetted by an attorney to make sure it doesn't get shipped back to town for yet another vote.

"I'm not a lawyer, but the language has to be proper," he said. "The language is crucially important, otherwise it will ruled out of order at the Statehouse."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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