State officials have granted a long-awaited license for a proposed 4,750-machine slots casino at Arundel Mills mall, but Maryland's premier gambling project still needs local approval that was delayed again on Monday.
The Anne Arundel County Council deferred a decision on a critical step for the initiative - zoning approval - just hours after it cleared an important hurdle. After impassioned testimony Monday night, the council chose unanimously to postpone voting on zoning measures because one member was absent with heart palpitations, another recused himself and a third resigned for a new position.
Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. needs both the state license and county authorization for what's expected to be the most lucrative slots site in Maryland.
Arundel officials have debated zoning changes for more than nine months, and have been under increasing pressure from state leaders, business interests and county residents to reach a decision. A crowd of hundreds that packed the Council Chamber groaned when lawmakers settled on a postponement.
The Arundel council plans to vote at its next meeting on Dec. 21. By then, the council will have chosen a new member to replace Democrat Josh Cohen, who left the council on Monday when he was sworn in as Annapolis mayor.
Even with the license and zoning, any groundbreaking could be delayed further by legal actions taken by angry residents who don't want slots in their neighborhood and by business interests who would rather put slots at the Laurel Park horse racing track.
Earlier in the day, the state slots commission met in Baltimore and quickly voted 5-2 in favor of licensing the gambling operation to be built by Cordish on a parking lot near the mall. The project is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars yearly for state and local governments. Cordish Cos. Chairman David Cordish was one of a handful of attendees.
In contrast, hundreds of people swarmed the council chambers in Annapolis, filled an overflow room and gathered outside to wave protest signs in the chilly weather. Anti-slots activists donned red shirts, and pro-slots forces wore green.
Toni Leazer, who lives near Arundel Mills, pleaded with the council to reject slots at the mall, saying traffic is already "horrible."
"If slots go into the mall, I'll sell my home," Leazer said, her voice breaking. "I've very adamant about that. And I love my home."
But Joey Richards, a Hanover resident who said she lives close to the mall, said she supports slots at Arundel Mills as a way to bring jobs to the area. "It makes economic sense," she said.
Councilwoman Tricia Johnson did not attend the meeting, and was receiving treatment at a nearby hospital for heart problems, officials said.
Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale asked the audience to keep Johnson "in your thoughts."
Shortly after the state commission granted the license, lawyers for Laurel Park's owners said they would appeal that decision and intervene when necessary in every zoning and permit proceeding related to the Cordish project.
The track's corporate parent, Magna Entertainment Corp., was disqualified from bidding when it failed to pay required license fees.
Now in bankruptcy proceedings, the Canadian company plans to auction the track, and the possibility of putting slots at the property could make it more valuable.
Meanwhile, the potential for a new owner at Laurel Park such as the family of Peter G. Angelos, a Baltimore lawyer and owner of the Orioles baseball team, raised hopes that slots could end up there. Angelos said in an interview on Monday that he is considering bidding on the track but that "nothing is definitive."
"My efforts would be to make sure it goes to Laurel. That's where my interests lie," Angelos said. "The site proposed at Arundel Mills is nothing but a grass-covered lot. That's at least two years away. The racetrack has facilities, parking lots, an infrastructure already in place."
The state slots commission, in approving the Arundel Mills license, praised Cordish as having the management and financial resources to make the 215,00-square-foot facility a success.
The commission previously awarded licenses to open slots casinos in Cecil County, on track for a October 2010 opening, and at Ocean Downs racetrack, which recently discovered structural problems that will push back a planned Memorial Day opening. Developers who submitted a bid to build a casino in Baltimore have indicated they plan to reveal their plans for a bigger facility, and pay the extra licensing fees, this week.
Divining how the Arundel council might vote has been difficult. Vitale, Johnson and Councilman Daryl Jones have been undecided. All three would have to support a zoning bill along with Councilman Ronald C. Dillon, a Republican, to reach the four votes needed for passage. But Vitale and Jones are sponsoring a competing bill that would allow slots at a different location.
Councilman James Benoit, a Democrat, has said he would vote no on slots zoning. In addition to Cohen, another member said he would not have voted last night: Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks recused himself over ethics questions.
Benoit argued for the delay last night, saying that the vacancy and absence posed a problem and "we need to ensure that we're a representative body."
Vitale said she was concerned about forcing a new council member to make such a crucial vote, but said the delay would give her time to "look for a couple more votes" for her competing measure.
David Cordish was first to speak of 99 who signed up to testify. Each speaker was allotted 90 seconds, and Cordish was cut off when his time was finished.
"There's a great deal riding on the county's decision," Cordish said. "There are thousands of jobs at stake. ... Our project is real. We have been designated and awarded our license."
Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.