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The battle for Vietnam.

The New England Mountain Bike Association stepped up and made a historic land purchase in 2003 that protected prized riding trails at Vietnam in Milford.

The landmark acquisition was acclaimed as the first of its kind and heralded for maintaining as open space some of the most desired and treacherous, twisting singletrack in the Northeast.

But a decade after NEMBA bought the 47-acre parcel and helped prevent development, the 1,200-acre area is again under siege.

Foxwoods Massachusetts and its investors, Crossroads Massachusetts LLC, is proposing to develop a $1 billion, 980,000-square-foot casino resort with three six-story buildings and a potential eight-to-10-story tower. The casino would include gaming areas, 500 hotel rooms 10 restaurants, retail space and an eight-story parking garage. The project is planned on 187 acres off Route 16 adjacent to the NEMBA property.

Philip Keyes, executive director of NEMBA, said the Vietnam trail network is a destination for mountain bikers and the organization opposes the casino proposal there.

"The quality of the trails and the work we have put into it have made it a sort of holy grail for mountain bikers. It's a place where riders can challenge their abilities. As a result, it has a cult-like following around New England,'' Keyes said.

"The NEMBA land is part of a mosaic of properties used by many people. It is our opinion that that area should remain as open space,'' he said.

Vietnam, also known as the Upper Charles Headwaters Area, is tucked between Route 85, Route 16 and Interstate 495, and includes land in Milford, Holliston and Hopkinton.

NEMBA raised more than $200,000 and purchased a 47-acre parcel, known at the time as the Liner property, in the fall of 2003. The technical singletrack trails include rock gardens, drop-offs and chutes in an area defined by rocks and known for its Milford pink granite, which was used in the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The casino proposal must first receive approval from Milford voters in a townwide referendum on a host agreement between casino developers and the town. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 19. If the referendum passes, a zoning bylaw change would be voted on at a Dec. 9 special town meeting.

"NEMBA owns property in Vietnam but we are not registered to vote in Milford. So we do not have an active voice,'' Keyes said.

NEMBA rejected an offer for its property from Ajax Gaming Ventures, a Crossroads investor. According to NEMBA, Ajax Gaming offered $35,000 for a one-year purchase option based on a $1.65 million sale price.

Keyes said it would be a breach of trust for the organization to consider selling the property.

"Our belief is quite strong. We were offered a fairly lucrative offer for this property. But we wanted to preserve this property for future generations,'' he said. "There was no way we could consider it. Our priority is the preservation of this site.''

Residential development threatened the Vietnam area around 2002. A developer planned to purchase 203 acres near Adams Street in Holliston but Holliston town meeting voters overwhelmingly approved the land purchase for about $1.1 million and preserved the property as open space.

At the same time, another developer was proposing houses along Route 16 in Milford. But that plan ran into environmental roadblocks when state officials confirmed that the site contained endangered species, including spotted turtles and four-toed salamanders, and vernal pools that function as rare wildlife habitats.

Meanwhile, NEMBA went out and raised about $210,000 to purchase another key parcel in the trail network. The organization received a lot of support from the bicycle industry, corporate donations and many contributions from mountain bikers.

"NEMBA put its money where its mouth is. NEMBA is one of the few, one of the first, to do the fundraising to purchase property. So it is historic,'' Keyes said.

If Foxwoods wins local approval, it still must compete for the single Eastern Massachusetts resort casino license. The Eastern Massachusetts license scenario took a turn Tuesday when voters in East Boston rejected a host agreement for a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs, which left a Wynn Resorts proposal for Everett as the only likely competitor with Milford.

Sean Reardon, an engineer with Tetra Tech, which is working for the developer, said he reached out to NEMBA in an effort to get the group's input and possible help with relocating some of the trails that would be lost if the project is built. However, the group declined to participate at this time.

"If we worked together we could get something better than if we worked alone,'' said Reardon, a mountain biker who said he has ridden at Vietnam at least 30 times over the years.

Reardon admitted there are many miles of trails on the developer's 187 acres, but he said only a few miles of trails would be lost by the buildings and access roads. He said the developer might relocate the affected trails. In addition, the developer would consider sponsoring a mountain bike race or a Red Bull event on the property.

"We have not had any discussion that contemplates restricting access to those trails. It's always been 'how do we incorporate them into this program,' '' Reardon said.

Keyes said he told an engineer representing the casino developer that NEMBA would be willing to play an active role in mitigating the issues if the casino is approved.

"If the casino occurs, we will work strongly to preserve as much of the trails and trail access as we can,'' Keyes said.

NEMBA has an action alert on its website. The message includes the following:

"While our organization has no position for or against casino gaming in Massachusetts, we believe that having a casino that potentially abuts NEMBA's property, Vietnam, would adversely affect this area's open space and trail system. We urge Milford residents to oppose the siting of this casino, and we urge all of our membership to express their concerns to the Massachusetts State Gaming Commission.''

The website has a link to an online form and a mailing address for sending letters to the gaming commission.

Contact Mark Conti at
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Nov 10, 2013
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