With a referendum seeking to block slots at Arundel Mills Mall cleared for the November ballot, would-be builders of the state's largest casino are facing another roadblock in the long struggle to bring gambling to Maryland.
Developer David S. Cordish had been eager to get started on his company's proposed $1 billion entertainment complex — seeking approval of building plans and permission to begin preparing land that is part of a mall parking lot for construction.
But the Anne Arundel County elections board announced Thursday that opponents of slots at the mall had gathered enough signatures to trigger a vote on a zoning decision, and within hours County Executive John R. Leopold ordered a halt to the county's review of Cordish's plans.
Leopold's decision could add up to seven months to the planning process for the casino, imperiling an expected late 2011 opening and further delaying slots revenue that state officials sorely need to help balance Maryland's budget.
A spokesman for Leopold said he ordered the halt out of respect for "the democratic process."
"If the voters decide to uphold the law that currently exists, then the review will resume," spokesman Dave Abrams said.
Cordish hopes things never get that far. He's launched a lawsuit claiming fraud in the signature-gathering — led by the Maryland Jockey Club, which is hoping for slots at the Laurel Park racetrack instead of the mall. A court will hear arguments in May.
If the lawsuit is successful and the petition drive is ruled out of bounds, the review of Cordish's plans "will resume," Abrams said.
This week's decision by the elections board represents a reversal — and a victory for the Jockey Club. Just nine days ago, elections officials said that even though mall opponents appeared to have gathered enough signatures, the petition would not be formally certified until after Cordish's challenge made its way through the courts.
But after lawyers and a judge huddled this week, a different opinion emerged.
If the elections board had not certified the results, the Jockey Club could have brought Cordish's lawsuit to Maryland's highest court, adding more delays, said James Praley, an attorney with the county elections board.
Joseph Weinberg, an official with The Cordish Cos., said in an e-mail Friday that delaying approval of the casino is costing the state and Anne Arundel millions, and characterized the Jockey Club-backed petition drive as a campaign led by "a single corporate interest to further their own business interests at the expense of taxpayers."
But Jockey Club lawyer Alan Rifkin called the Cordish lawsuit "frivolous" and "entirely baseless," and praised Leopold for halting the review.
"I think the county executive had no alternative," Rifkin said Friday. "Without the … zoning ordinance in place, it would violate the law to process any permits or take any further action with regard to a project that is not approved."
Anne Arundel Councilman Daryl D. Jones, a Democrat whose district includes Arundel Mills, said Leopold's actions indicate that he "wants to listen to the will of the voters."
"I don't think that permits [for the casino] should have been issued anyway," said Jones, who voted against the slots zoning legislation. "The prudent thing to do is to allow the court system to work it out."
The dispute pits two influential business interests with high-powered teams of lawyers against each other, with high stakes.
Marylanders voted in a Nov. 2008 referendum to legalize slot machine gambling, which state officials hope will yield about $600 million a year in revenues. Cordish's proposed 4,750-machine casino would be the largest of five authorized locations.
The Maryland Jockey Club has been fighting the Cordish proposal from the outset. The club's license application was rejected last year when it failed to submit $18 million in fees for its proposal to install 3,000 slot machines at the Laurel Park racetrack.
The club has challenged the decision, arguing in part that voters always believed that slots would be at the racetrack – not at the mall.
The Jockey Club launched an effort to overturn a decision zoning decision by the county council, hiring Washington-based FieldWorks to collect the nearly 19,000 signatures needed to trigger a November referendum.
Documents filed in Feburary and March show that the Maryland Jockey Club contributed $659,396 to Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, the legal entity running the petition drive.
Cordish has accused Fieldworks of misleading Anne Arundel residents during the petition drive.
In a 16-page complaint filed Feb. 23, PPE Casino Resorts Maryland, LLC, a Cordish subsidiary, alleged "glaring and massive fraud."
The complaint alleges that FieldWorks forged signatures in Anne Arundel and misled potential signers by telling them that the petition was to keep slots out of the mall, rather than in a facility adjacent to the shopping center.
Cordish responded to the Board of Elections' decision to certify the signatures in an e-mail Friday, saying that the board "has the narrow view that illegality and fraud are not in their purview for review."
He predicted that the petitions "will be found to be illegal for a variety of reasons."
The county elections board certified Thursday that 22,967 signatures gathered were valid. In its review, the board threw out 17,441 other signatures as invalid.