Anne Arundel County has been mired for months in a zoning battle over what would be the state's largest and most lucrative slots parlor, and now the head of the county council wants the entire project moved from Arundel Mills Mall to an industrial area miles away.
Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale said she will introduce a plan at the council's meeting tonight that would permit a slots parlor south of Route 32, far from residential neighbors of the mall who have promised a protracted battle with the developer.
Meanwhile, a pro-slots council member who said he is exasperated by more than six months of inaction has his own plans to revive the original zoning changes for slots at Arundel Mills, where Baltimore-based developer Cordish Cos. wants to build a 4,750-machine facility on a parking lot. The measure could be reintroduced as soon as today.
With the slots commission on the verge of issuing its second of five available licenses later this week, to Penn National for a 1,500-machine facility in Cecil County, some Arundel elected officials are worried that their site may be left behind.
The Cordish bid, submitted to the state in February, has been stalled by a seven-member council that is divided about having a casino next to a mall. Two members support the Cordish project, two oppose it and the other three, including Republican Vitale and Daryl Jones, a Democrat whose district includes the mall, have said publicly that they are undecided.
County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican who opposes slots but says he won't interfere with voters' desire for them, pushed the zoning legislation in March, only to withdraw it this summer when the council failed to act. He has since been silent on the slots debate. "At this point, it's in the councils' hands," Leopold's spokesman, Dave Abrams, said.
Several council members have said they won't vote on a zoning change before the state issues a slots license - a scenario the slots commission wants to avoid.
Donald C. Fry, chairman of the slots commission, has said at the past several commission hearings that he wants the county council to act first.
He said the state law enabling slot machines in five counties, approved by voters last fall, makes it clear that facilities should be licensed only if local zoning is in place. In addition, he said, the commission needs to know what sort of rules the county will place on the casino operator - crime mitigation and new roads, for example - before deciding whether issuing a license is in the state's best interest. He said the process doesn't work correctly if done in reverse.
Fry said the commission expects an update on the Anne Arundel proposal at its meeting Wednesday. "That may trigger a discussion on what else, if anything, we can do," he said.
The voter-approved slots plan allows a site anywhere in Arundel within two miles of the Route 295. While most observers expected the Laurel Park race track to gain the license, the company that owns the track submitted an incomplete bid and was disqualified.
The industrial area near Route 32 falls within the legal boundary, but before Friday, when Vitale said she and Jones would co-sponsor a bill to re-zone that area, no one had been talking about it.
Vitale said the area offers better infrastructure than the area around the mall, which she thinks could be tied up for years in legal fights pressed by nearby residents opposed to it. Jones did not return calls.
"Mr. Cordish went into this knowing that no site had been approved when he put his bid in, knowing that there was no zoning. There's never been a promise of zoning," said Vitale, a Republican.
"This whole process was intended to have multiple bidders and multiple sites. I have no control, as a councilman, the number of bidders or the numbers of sites. There was no guarantee that if there was only one bidder and only one site, it was a shoo-in," she said.
Developer David Cordish said in an e-mail Sunday that his company's application - the only one for an Arundel slots facility - "calls for a casino at Arundel Mills." He said he is confident that "very shortly" he will be licensed by the state slots commission and that the county council, by a majority vote, will grant the requisite zoning changes at the mall.
Cordish did not directly respond to Vitale's proposal but emphasized that Arundel Mills "has perfect infrastructure and entertainment amenities to maximize gaming revenues, tax revenues for state and county and convenience for visitors."
A slots parlor near the mall could generate $450 million for the state and $30 million for the county every year, some studies show. Cordish is required by law to invest at least $237.5 million in the casino at Arundel, but Cordish has said he plans to spend about $1 billion on a 30,000 square foot facility that uses his Live! brand.
Cordish has been working to convince council members of the merits of his proposal. He offered at least one council member free lodging at casinos in Indiana and Florida he has been involved with, an apparent effort to highlight his work. But the county ethics commission ruled in March that the council member, who was not identified in documents, cannot accept the gift.
County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a slots proponent, said he may re-introduce the Arundel Mills zoning legislation as soon as today.
"I'm extremely disappointed by how the council's handled this," said Dillon, a Republican. "It's really just a lack of stepping up. The council's tried to brush it off on the location committee... I just think it's really irresponsible for the council to let a proposal like this die without going on the record. I think it deserves a vote."
County Council member James Benoit, who opposes slots, also said it is crucial "to get everyone on the record and get this matter behind us."
"From where I sit, it's unfair to the Cordish company and the stakeholders at the state level, to not vote," said Benoit, a Democrat. "For us to not make a decision on this, it's just not what we were hired to do."
Benoit vowed to introduce his own Arundel Mills zoning legislation - with the idea that he'd vote against it - if no one else does.
The state has already taken some steps on the Cordish proposal. The lottery commission, which regulates gambling and is overseeing background checks on slots applicants, determined last month that Cordish is financially and ethically qualified to operate a slots parlor.
"It's good to hear they may be moving forward," Fry said of the council. He could not be reached over the weekend, after Vitale told The Baltimore Sun about her alternate zoning proposal.
How council members would act on competing bills is not clear.
Further complicating the matter is a possible change in the council make-up.
Slots foe Joshua Cohen is the Democratic candidate for Annapolis mayor, and if he wins next month, the county council would appoint his successor. Some have speculated that any council members who don't want to support Cordish's proposal publicly could get around the dilemma by agreeing to name someone who is pro-slots - shifting the balance on the panel and boosting the odds for zoning approval.
Opponents of slots at Arundel Mills have vowed to fight Cordish at every turn. Nearby residents had argued that a decade-old agreement between the mall and developer of the surrounding property, which now has hundreds of homes, preclude the construction of a mega-slots parlor.
But the county's legal office said earlier this month that the development plans are "broad enough" to include slots.
Rob Annicelli, a Hanover resident who holds one of the covenants and head of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills Mall, disagrees. He says homeowners are ready to take Cordish to court over the covenants.
The grass-roots group also believes Cordish has undercounted the number of residents within a half mile of the proposed slots facility and overestimated the revenue a parlor there could produce. Annicelli said such discrepancies could be grounds for Stop Slots to try to invalidate Cordish's bid.
"We are going to go down every avenue we have," Annicelli said. "And we are going to stop them."