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Ehrlich's slots revision aims to strip local zoning power

Adopting suggestions made by a racetrack owner, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is proposing a sweeping override of local zoning authority as part of his revised slot machines legislation.

The proposal drew an angry protest from local leaders, and one state senator predicted it would set off a "firestorm."

The long-awaited amendments released yesterday by Ehrlich include a provision forbidding local governments to "prohibit or regulate the construction, installation or operation" of slot machine facilities through planning and zoning laws.

Another section, lifted almost verbatim from language proposed by the Maryland Jockey Club, would order local governments to act "expeditiously" on all permit applications and inspections related to slots and racetracks.

The Ehrlich amendments would immediately affect Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Allegany counties - the sites of the four racetracks where Ehrlich wants to install 11,500 slot machines.

But the proposed overruling of local powers was so broad that it even drew protests from the leader of a jurisdiction that is not directly affected.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said Ehrlich is already unfair to the local governments that are home to the tracks because he doesn't set aside enough of the slots proceeds to cover their added costs.

"Now what he's doing is taking away our planning and zoning authority, which is an attack on every local government in the state of Maryland," Duncan said.

The provisions also appear to run counter to the philosophy Ehrlich espoused when he was running for governor last year.

"I get very concerned when I see pre-emption of local zoning decisions," Ehrlich said in an April 30 interview.

Kenneth Masters, the governor's chief legislative officer, said the amendments reflect the administration's concern that delays at the local level could prevent the state from collecting $120 million in up-front licensing fees. Ehrlich is counting on those fees to help balance next year's budget.

"Part of the issue is to realize those fees in fiscal [2004] and we didn't want zoning to be an impediment to the process," Masters said. "It's a recognition of the fact the licensees, the local governments and the state are all going to benefit from getting the revenues flowing as quickly as possible."

The Ehrlich aide said the administration is not as concerned about local bureaucrats as it is about "local activists trying to take a contrarian view." He expressed the hope that the amendments would preclude the lengthy public hearings that might be required under some local laws.

While the administration accepted the jockey club's suggestions on zoning and land use, it rejected other amendments proposed by the owner of Pimlico and Laurel - overriding local alcoholic beverage laws and allowing racetrack casinos to stay open for slots and drinks until 4 a.m. on weekends.

"This whole project is controversial enough without adding that layer of predictable opposition," Masters said.

The administration released its long list of amendments as rumors swirled in Annapolis yesterday that one of the staunchest critics of slots was tempering his opposition.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch asserted that was not the case.

Some sources said Busch sounded somewhat more receptive to slots during a private meeting with Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller this week, but Busch denied any change.

When asked during the Wednesday meeting how upset he would be if slots passed, Busch said he answered: "Am I going to run back and forth on Rowe Boulevard with my clothes off? No."

But yesterday, he said: "I don't know that I've softened my message on anything."

Busch then sharply criticized Ehrlich's proposed pre-emptions of local authority. "I don't know how you waive the zoning laws for these facilities and you don't do it for any other private business entity," he said.

He said the need for up-front fees, which neither the House or Senate is counting on for next year's budget, is not compelling enough to justify overruling local laws. "There's not this level of urgency, and it seems desperate to do this," he said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley did not return calls yesterday seeking comment.

But another city leader, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, said the proposal "is going to raise a firestorm."

"It sets an awful precedent and I would even question its legality," said the chairman of the city's Senate delegation.

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson could not be reached for comment, but the leader of the county's Senate delegation found it ironic that a Republican governor would propose such amendments.

"Usually conservatives like states' rights and local rights," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat who opposes slots. "Here he is trampling on the right of local jurisdictions so track owners can increase their profits."

Even staunch Ehrlich allies expressed misgivings about the proposal.

"Generally, when it comes to the relationship of state and local government, I favor local government being able to make their own determination," said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr.

Ehrlich's rewrite of his original slots bill - which was rejected by racetrack owners as "unworkable" - draws heavily on suggestions made by the Maryland Jockey Club, a subsidiary of Ontario-based Magna Entertainment Corp. that owns Pimlico and Laurel Park.

In many cases, the administration adopted significant passages of the company's suggestions word for word. But Ehrlich's aides rejected many of the jockey club's more ambitious proposals that could have hamstrung the state's enforcement powers and put the state at greater financial risk.

One suggestion the administration did adopt almost word for word was one that Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens called an "insult" to local governments.

"A local government shall act expeditiously on all permit applications, inspections and other requirements related to the construction and operation of a video lottery facility and racetrack improvements, including site improvements and utilities related to the improvements," the amendment reads.

All but the words "inspections and other requirements" are taken as the jockey club proposed it.

Owens said Wednesday she believed that language was designed to empower racetrack owners to take a local government to court if they were unhappy with the pace of permit approvals.

Masters said he hadn't looked at it that way. "I hadn't really thought about conveying standing to the license holders. I suppose that argument could be made," he said.

The idea of restricting local zoning authority was also suggested by the jockey club, but the administration used different wording.

Masters said the administration received suggested amendments from each of the state's racetrack owners.

"We looked at all of them and whenever appropriate selected language that was appropriate from each," he said. The Sun obtained a copy of the jockey club's suggested amendments but not those of the other owners.

Among the changes suggested by the jockey club was cutting the allocation of slots proceeds to Ocean Downs racetrack from 0.3 percent to 0.15 percent. The administration adopted that amendment.

Bill Rickman Jr., the owner of Ocean Downs, said yesterday that he was unhappy about the cut when it was announced last week but didn't know it had been a jockey club suggestion.

"That is amazing to me," he said, calling it a "cheap shot" by Joseph A. De Francis, the jockey club's chief executive.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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