De Francis wants new land-use rules at Pimlico

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland racetrack executive Joseph A. De Francis said yesterday that he intends to ask the City Council to change land-use planning rules so he can overhaul Pimlico Race Course, and possibly bring in slot machines.

De Francis said he can't move forward with a major rebuilding of the track unless the council revises a statute that restricts what can be done at the site.

De Francis said the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent, Magna Entertainment, Inc., intend to make improvements to Pimlico regardless of whether slots are legalized next year.

"This doesn't have anything really to do with slots per se, just to the extent that our master plan for Pimlico has the necessary flexibility in it to accommodate slots physically," he said.

De Francis said the council would have to decide separately at some point - if the state approves slots - whether to change zoning to allow the track to operate slot machines.

Aaron Meisner, a community activist and slots opponent who lives in nearby Mount Washington, said he is wary of De Francis' effort.

He suggested that De Francis is trying to "end-run the process" by having the council approve zoning-related change before the General Assembly decides whether to legalize slot machine gambling.

"Nobody's opposed to upgrading the track, but at the same time we don't think a zoning request for full-blown slots is appropriate at this time," Meisner said. "The zoning issue is a major local safeguard."

De Francis invited community groups in the Pimlico area to a meeting at the track tomorrow to discuss the plans, which include altering the existing racing oval and moving the grandstand. He said he hopes to enlist the support of residents for his efforts to get city planning rules changed.

Diane Frederick, executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., said there is a lot of interest in the meeting. "I think that the plans for the track have such an enormous impact that we're encouraging people to be there," she said.

Pimlico's neighbors have been waiting for the track to relocate its entrances, demolish some old barns and make other long-promised improvements, Frederick said. "We would like to see them do what they were supposed to ... over the last 20 years," she said.

Council Vice President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, whose district includes Pimlico, agreed. "The community had some concerns, and so did we," she said. "They were supposed to make repairs."

Along with changes to its physical plant, Pimlico is asking the city to make slots a permitted use, Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said she was told by track officials.

She said she asked if the plans are "a go if you don't get slots? ... They're saying no matter what."

After the community meeting, the next step for Pimlico is to return to the city's Design Advisory Panel on Oct. 30. The panel gave tentative approval to the proposal last week, but the panel had some concerns about parking and entrances.

Once the plan wins approval from the panel, it will have to pass the City Council. If the plan is approved there, it will go to the Planning Commission.

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