Off-track betting could be coming to Hampstead

Jon Kelvey
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

Could off-track betting on horse racing could be coming to the Town of Hampstead? The answer to that question hinges on the decisions of the town's zoning appeals board, next scheduled to meet July 6, and the Maryland Racing Commission.

Off-track betting facilities allow patrons to bet on horse races around the country being simulcast on monitors. The Maryland Jockey Club would like to operate 16 of those simulcasts in a presently vacant portion of the Greenmount Station Restaurant building, according to restaurant owner Chris Richards.

If this plan comes to pass, it would mark the seventh such off-track betting site in Maryland, according to the Maryland Racing Commission website.

If a needed zoning variance is approved, the Maryland Jockey Club would lease a portion of the Greenmount Station building from Richards for a period of three years, but would not, he said, impact restaurant operations.

"It would be connected, but they would be separate, and the off-track betting would not be operated by Greenmount Station," Richards said. "We would be serving drinks and beverages to the patrons of the off-track betting, but we would not be staffing the tellers and counting the money."

Restaurant patrons of age wishing to play wagers would be able to access the off-track betting facility through a door, he said.

Approval, however, is not guaranteed.

After an initial public hearing before the Hampstead Board of Zoning Appeals on June 7, in which concerns were raised about parking and the moral affects of gambling in the community, that body decided to put off a vote until meeting again on July 6 to address those issues, according to Hampstead Town Manager Tammi Ledley.

If the zoning appeals board decides to approve the zoning variance, the Maryland Racing Commission will take 30 days to decide whether to issue a license, Richards said, although at this point he is accustomed to waiting periods.

"We have been talking about this for six months, so it's a long process just with the town," Richards said. "They had to pass some kind of ordinance first to even allow us to get to this point."

The Hampstead Town Council passed Ordinance No. 518, which added off-track betting as a conditional use to the town zoning code, in March.

"We had nothing in our town code about gambling," Ledley said. "We had to look at the facility and determine, 'Do we write something up to allow the off-track betting?'"

After doing some research, Ledley said she was not concerned about the community impact of such a facility, considering the target demographic.

"Basically off-track betting is typically retirees," she said. "They are out between noon and 5 p.m. because they don't come out after dark."

After speaking with police in Boonsboro and Baltimore County, Ledley said she found the facilities do not generate crime in the surrounding communities. And as far as an off track betting site hosting slots or other casino games, she said, that is not in the cards.

"Because the conditional use is for off-track betting only, it is not casino slot machines," Ledley said. "There is no conditional use for that type of facility in the Town of Hampstead."

Because off-track betting is a conditional, and not a permitted use in the zoning code, the board of zoning appeals must grant a variance, which led to the June 7 hearing — and some expressions of concern.

Beth Hood is one of three owners of Almost Family Childcare, which sits next to and shares parking lot space with Greenmount Station. Many of those parking spaces are on Hood's property and reserved for her customers until 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. That's a fact she said she is already having trouble communicating to Greenmount Station customers, despite the tow-away signs she has posted.

"Green's Garage, I have them on speed dial. 'I have another car in my lot,' and it is minimally once or twice a week," Hood said. "The other day I had them here at 1 p.m. I'm like, 'Guys, I've got 17 parking places; I have 60 families, 80 kids."

Given the parking headaches Hood has already faced, she is worried what any additional traffic might do to her business. Hood, and her customers, she said, also have concerns about the nature of an off-track betting business.

"Parents' concerns are: here are these guys standing outside smoking cigarettes, cigars, whatever and drinking; and my kids are out on the playground," Hood said. "I am not against off-track betting. I am against that location for off-track betting."

Hood was quick to add that she was happy for Richards that Greenmount Station has been doing well, but that without more parking available, she can't help but be worried for her own business.

Richards, for his part, said he also values his neighbors and wants to work with them to find a solution: He is in talks with the nearby Greenmount Bowl bowling alley to make use of more parking spaces, something he said the board of zoning appeals had requested he do.

"I would like to have a chance to make it work and show her that it can work," Richards said. "The last thing I would want to do is have a business over there that would take more parking away from her or her customers. I'm not looking to do that, and if we can't figure out something that doesn't negatively impact her business, then we just won't do it."

If Richards, or the board of zoning appeals, decide off-track betting in the Greenmount Station building is a nonstarter, it's not clear if that would be the end of the notion or if the Maryland Jockey Club would look for another location in the town. The club's General Manager Sal Sinatra did not return multiple calls asking for a comment for this story.

jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com

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