Anne Arundel County has halted construction at the site of what could be the state's largest and most lucrative slots parlor, after opponents of the project filed a new challenge that could delay work for up to 45 days.
Baltimore-based Cordish Cos.' plan to open a $1 billion casino and entertainment complex at Arundel Mills mall has already been challenged over traffic concerns. The latest appeal suspends the company's permit to prepare the site for construction.
Harry A. Blumenthal, an attorney for the Villages of Dorchester Homeowners Association and three residents of the community of homes near the mall, filed the appeal late Wednesday afternoon, and the county issued a stop-work order the next day. Blumenthal said he did not intend to stop work at the site, but wants to make sure that neighbors are satisfied with the company's plans to handle traffic.
Jeanie Anacker, a spokeswoman for Cordish, did not respond to questions about how the latest appeal would affect the construction timeline. She called the delay "outrageous" and said it costs the state and county over a million dollars each day in lost revenue and prevents about 2,500 construction workers from beginning employment.
County Executive John R. Leopold said he was "disappointed" that a new appeal had been filed, citing the potential revenue the county stands to gain from the casino proceeds. Leopold said he is pushing to settle the matter on Feb. 24, the planned date for a hearing before the county's Board of Appeals.
"It's about jobs and revenue," said Leopold, a Republican. "We are facing a severe budget crisis and in this era of fiscal austerity, job creation and revenue creation are at the top of everybody's list. This stop-work order affects 2,000 workers."
The early site work was expected to take about two months. A parking garage holding a temporary casino has been expected to open by the end of this year, after a long battle challenging the zoning for the site ended with voter approval for the casino in November. The entire project is slated for completion by the end of 2012.
In an e-mail Friday afternoon, Blumenthal, a prominent land-use attorney in the county, said the latest appeal sought to question the approval of Cordish's site development plan, which the attorney says does not ensure that the flow of traffic to the casino does not disrupt surrounding neighborhoods.
The matter is scheduled to be heard by the county's Board of Appeals, the body tasked with rendering final decisions on appeals related to zoning, licenses and permits. The board has 45 days from the date of filing to hear the case and render a decision, which can be appealed to county circuit court.
The appeal is the latest in a lengthy series of legal disputes surrounding slots in Anne Arundel County.
Blumenthal, a registered lobbyist in the county for the Maryland Jockey Club — which waged a protracted legal battle for an unsuccessful ballot referendum on slots in hopes of steering a casino to the Laurel Park racecourse — has said he is working on the appeals on a pro bono basis. The Jockey Club, which paid Blumenthal about $103,000 for lobbying work last year, has said it was not involved in the initial appeal, and on Friday said it would not comment on the issue further.
Anacker said she believes the Jockey Club is involved with the appeals.
"It is particularly outrageous for the Maryland taxpayer that, simultaneously with our delay, the Maryland Jockey Club is petitioning the state for a multimillion-dollar bailout," she said.
Leopold also questioned the financing of the appeal.
"I think the citizens have the right to ask, 'Who's paying [Blumenthal's] attorney's fees?'" he said. "I'd like to have that question answered."
Blumenthal filed another appeal earlier this month of the county's approval of Cordish's plans for traffic management around the mall. Retail giant Costco, which has a location near the mall, has also filed an appeal over traffic issues. The county's order to stop work was first reported by The (Annapolis) Capital.
Grading permits are awarded on condition of approval of a site development plan, which is not subject to appeal. Blumenthal's appeal of the grading permit was the only way to object to the site plan, county officials said. According to county law, the appeal of a grading permit automatically triggers a stay of the permit.
"It's not a matter of discretion. It's a matter of operational law," said County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson, who added, "Mr. Blumenthal is being very creative by attempting to appeal something that is not appealable."
Blumenthal said it was not his intent to force a stop-work order, and he told county officials he would agree to the stipulation that no stay would be enforced, but was told that was "not permissible," a situation he called "bizarre."