Local government officials could block the legalization of slot machine gambling in their communities even if voters in 2008 approve a ballot initiative passed this week in the General Assembly, a lawyer with the Maryland attorney general's office said yesterday.
A little-noticed provision in the referendum legislation that orders state slots operators to comply with local zoning regulations essentially allows local authorities to exercise final say, said Kathryn M. Rowe, an assistant state attorney general who deals with bills passed by the legislature.
The threat of local opposition sets up yet another battleground in what many believe will be a fierce referendum campaign on slot machines leading up to the November 2008 election.
Planning officials in Anne Arundel and Cecil counties said yesterday that they believe slot machines are not allowed under current zoning codes, although they noted that the statutes could be adjusted if a voters in each locale approve the referendum.
If local officials in other proposed locations were to pass similar zoning restrictions on gambling, it could drastically reduce the scale of Gov. Martin O'Malley's slots proposal.
Voters will be asked in next year's November election to amend the Maryland Constitution and allow 15,000 machines at five sites: one each in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
"I think it's very poor legislation, because the way it reads, it's in the Constitution that the state depends on money from slots from places where local jurisdictions can zone it out," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican who voted against the slots referendum and a companion bill. "It's hard to believe that made it through."
'Part of the process'
In rejecting slots, local officials would also turn down millions of dollars in local impact funding that could go to long-neglected needs such as infrastructure improvements, and past opinion polls in many of the jurisdictions have shown a majority of residents supporting legalizing the machines.
"The slots law includes local impact funding to help surrounding communities," said Stephen J. Kearney, a spokesman for O'Malley. "And this zoning discussion is just part of the process."
The zoning provision stems from an amendment offered late last week by Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, as the House was in the final stages of approving the referendum. The measure, which states that "a video lottery facility shall comply with all applicable planning and zoning laws of the local jurisdiction," passed with little fanfare in the House and Senate.
"I just think it's so important that the citizenry have a role in these decisions when it comes to facilities such as what we're talking about," Kach said yesterday, noting that all developments go through county zoning processes. "I didn't feel as if a slots facility should get special treatment, and obviously the members of the legislature agreed with that and adopted the amendment."
Opposition to slot machines has run high among public officials in Worcester County and Ocean City, who said they think that gambling would cut into tourism dollars. Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has also been an ardent foe. Most Cecil officials support slots but would have to change their zoning codes to allow them, officials there said.
As for the other two locations, Baltimore officials had proposed a site south of the football stadium to O'Malley, and the Allegany County slots site would not be affected, since it is slated for state-owned land.
Should slots not go forward in Anne Arundel and Worcester, the number of machines proposed by the governor would be cut almost in half - taking away a large amount of the $650 million in state revenues expected annually from slot machines for public education and health care. The state's horse industry would also be affected, as the Anne Arundel and Worcester slots sites are expected to be at two racetracks, Laurel Park and Ocean Downs.
Louis J. Raffetto Jr., president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates both Laurel Park and Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, said he would look into the potential impact of the zoning amendment.
"I'm not a zoning lawyer, so I really can't comment on that," he said.
Defining property use
Most zoning laws in Maryland exist to define how property can be used, and if no zoning laws exist for specific purposes, they generally have to be added by county councils or commissions, zoning officials in several areas said yesterday. Racetracks have been allowed under "special use" exemptions in zoning code, but it's not clear whether that exemption includes slot machines, officials said.
In Anne Arundel, existing zoning codes do not allow slot machines, said Leopold and Lawrence R. Tom, his director of planning and zoning.
"As a member of the General Assembly, I voted against slots, and my position has remained unchanged," Leopold said. "However, like all other interested parties in the state, I want to know what Anne Arundel County voters think of this issue."
Tom said he believed the Anne Arundel County Council would have to take action to make slot machines an "accessory use" to the current primary use of Laurel Park, which is for horse racing and betting.
If slots were precluded from the Anne Arundel site, that would eliminate 4,750 machines from the 15,000 statewide total.
In a statement released yesterday, Worcester County commissioners, who sent an official letter two weeks ago to the governor and legislative leaders opposing slots, said they do not believe that their current zoning prohibits slots parlors.
"A race track is a conforming special exception in an agricultural district," they said in the statement. "We expect that slots would be defined as an integral part of a race track and therefore, should be allowed. We're not aware of any zoning being an issue.
"As far as re-zoning, the county generally does not rezone, unless at the request of the landowner."
Still, several local officials said they had been unaware of the interpretation of the laws from the attorney general's office and suggested that the zoning statutes could be changed.
A slots parlor would not be allowed under current zoning codes in Cecil County, either, said Eric Sennstrom, director of the county's planning and zoning department.
Whether the law could be changed is another question, said County Commissioner Rebecca J. Demmler, who called herself the lone opponent of slots on Cecil's five-member governing board.
If the statewide referendum passes, "it'll come to the county," she said of slot machine gambling. "This is very early in the game, but at least it would have to go through another process."