By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Already concerned about a fast-tracked land deal that could bring a casino to the edge of their Kenosha County community, some Bristol residents say a gag order in the agreement only raises more alarm bells.
One of the biggest critics of the Bristol Village Board’s handling of the proposed land sale is former Bristol Village Board member Carolyn Owens.
“Why would they agree to a gag order?” Owens said after Monday’s Village Board meeting at which residents voiced their concerns about the fast-moving deal with a group representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida and its Hard Rock Casino interests.
Optional clauses requiring neither party in a property sale make any announcement about the sale are not uncommon in private agreements and public development negotiations. The village, in this case, is also bound by open government laws.
Owens, who spent 20 years on the board before stepping down in April, said she doesn’t remember ever seeing such a gag order on any letters of intent worked out with the village.
“That’s a red flag right there, and that should have been a red flag for the trustees but they’re trying to keep all of this on the down-low,” she said, adding the public has a right to know what’s going on.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported the village and its Community Development Authority approved a letter of intent last month in a hastily called meeting that would give Kenosha Landco the option to purchase nearly 60 acres of prime land. The buyer would pay Bristol a total of $100,000 over two years for the exclusive right to purchase the property.
The deal could ultimately be worth as much as $15 million for the community of about 5,000 people, located 14 miles west of Kenosha.
The land is owned by the village but is actually located in the city of Kenosha. It’s part of a land settlement more than a decade ago between Bristol and Kenosha that expanded the city’s western boundary while giving Bristol the right to keep the proceeds from the sale of the property.
While Bristol officials continue to insist they don’t know the buyer’s plans, Kenosha Landco shares the same address as Hard Rock International, operator of a brand of hotels, restaurants and casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The letter of intent includes a secrecy clause stating that “Except as required by law, none of the parties hereto shall, directly or indirectly, disclose, comment or make any other communication concerning the contents of this letter prior to the execution of the Option Agreement without prior written notice to the other party.”
“This legal jargon translates to, ‘Keep everything quiet until the option agreement goes through,” Bristol resident Danielle Whitaker said during this week’s meeting. “The letter of intent, which all five board members accepted on June 13, coaches to disclose the absolute legal bare minimum to your community.”
Board President Mike Farrell told community members the option agreement does not include any information about a casino project and that the offer was proprietary until it was considered by the Community Development Authority. He reiterated that it would be up to the city of Kenosha to decide land use and zoning questions should the sale be approved.
“The Community Development Authority thought its duty to our taxpayers to accept the offer that we felt was best from the (three) offers we had,” Farrell said at Monday’s meeting.
The Seminole Tribe and Hard Rock International officials have not returned Wisconsin Spotlight’s requests for comment. On Wednesday, the city of Kenosha finally acknowledged that it had received Wisconsin Spotlight’s open records request sent more than three weeks ago.
Owens said the hasty completion and vote on the letter of intent last month “stinks to high heaven.”
“I don’t know why they would consider something like that (the secrecy clause). That implies they’re hiding something,” the former trustee said.