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Judge to hear environmental concerns over Baltimore casino construction

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to determine whether a protest over environmental concerns will halt a casino construction project along Russell Street.

Caesars Entertainment will build its 3,750-machine, two-level casino on this vacant lot on Russell Street. (File photo)

Judge Yolanda Tanner will hear arguments on whether to extend a temporary restraining order that she issued Monday halting permitting and initial construction of the $400 million casino.

Caesars Entertainment Corp. had planned to break ground this month on city-owned land near Gwynns Falls Trail and the Middle Branch River to construct Caesars Horseshoe Baltimore. The casino will have 140,000 square feet of gaming space flanked by six dining and entertainment spaces and a 4,000-space parking garage.

A group of residents from nearby Westport filed a lawsuit Feb. 20 seeking to halt construction because, according to them, the Maryland Department of the Environment failed to hold public hearings or solicit public input on an environmental impact report compiled by Caesars.

The unique, urban Gwynns Falls Trail has been constructed and acquired over the years using federal funds and funding from state programs and agencies, according to its website.

MDE spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said the department did hold a public meeting on the environmental impact report — on June 1, 2011, at Harbor Hospital. At that time, the city casino operator was a different entity, Baltimore City Entertainment Group, that was awarded the license in 2009 after it was the sole bidder.

“The company doesn’t matter. It’s the property,” Kappalman said of the MDE public meeting 21 months ago.

Ten-year Westport resident Merab Rice, 70, a plaintiff in the case, said Tuesday that she was unaware a public meeting had taken place in 2011.

“We knew nothing about it,” Rice said, adding that a private, 2004 environmental study of the future casino site showed it was contaminated with arsenic. “This is a big topic here because of the contamination and the children who live here. I figure they should clear the grounds before they try to build anything on it and it’s not going to be harmful to the people and the children of Westport.”

Kappalman said MDE officials filed papers in court Tuesday pledging to hold another public meeting soon.

Caesars spokesman Dave Curley declined to comment on the lawsuit or temporary restraining order.

“Given the ongoing nature of the proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” Curley wrote in an email.

The legal action by the residents is being funded by The Inner Harbor Stewardship Foundation, a nonprofit organization headed by former Washington attorney William Canfield III.

Anthony Gorski, an Annapolis attorney representing the residents, said Tuesday the hearing will determine whether the restraining order will be extended and whether a full hearing on the concerns of the residents will be scheduled.

“This case is about making MDE go back and do what’s required under the law,” Gorski said. “This [casino] property is all city owned, and it borders on another city-owned parcel, a part of the Gwynns Falls Trail, and there are people back there all the time. From an environmental perspective, it’s important.”

After Maryland voters approved the addition of table games to the state’s slots parlors in November, the Horseshoe Casino was redesigned by Caesars. It will hold 3,750 slots and up to 110 table games such as blackjack, roulette and craps. The casino will also have a World Series of Poker room and restaurants.