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Defiant Cordish holds groundbreaking for Arundel Mills slots

The Cordish Cos. broke ground on a planned $1 billion slots casino at Arundel Mills mall Thursday, and though the company plans to begin preparing the site for building within a week, a new challenge by neighbors to the project threatens to complicate construction.

David Cordish, the Baltimore-based developer, was flanked by some of the state's most prominent politicians for the ceremony. He smiled and declared, "It doesn't get any better." The slots parlor, slated to open as a temporary structure this year and be fully built by late 2012, could become the state's largest single source of tax revenue.

The project has one more hurdle to clear, however. While Cordish's site plan has received approval from Anne Arundel County, it has not yet been granted its building permit. The complaint filed this week, which challenges the county's approval of Cordish's plans for dealing with increased traffic near the mall, threatens to hold up the process for securing one.

County officials said the challenge to the appeals board process prevents it from granting a building permit until the complaint is settled. The company holds a grading permit, which means it can begin preparing the site.

Either side can appeal the board's decision to the Circuit Court. If Cordish is successful at the appeals board level, the county can proceed with the permit process. But if the homeowners win the challenge, Cordish would face additional delay.

Cordish officials call the complaint "frivolous" and argue their county-approved plan exceeds requirements. Opponents say they don't intend to try to stop the project but want only to ensure a thorough traffic plan.

Cordish said the groundbreaking was planned more than a month ago for the project, featuring a 4,750-slot machine parlor, several restaurants and a live music venue.

His company fought a months-long legal challenge to the approved zoning for the project and ultimately emerged victorious at the ballot box, winning a resounding victory for the casino in a referendum. The Maryland Jockey Club, and part-owner Penn National Gaming, funded the opposition to the tune of about $7 million, hoping to steer slots to Laurel Park. The two denied this week that they are involved with the new challenge.

County Executive John R. Leopold called the appeal "just another hiccup," and urged the appeals board to settle the matter "expeditiously."

"Cordish intends to go beyond the requirements of the law," said Leopold, referring to Cordish's traffic improvements. "I don't think the appeal will be successful. The administrative decision is the correct decision, and I don't believe the Board of Appeals will overturn it."

The appeal was filed by the Villages of Dorchester Homeowners Association and three residents, including Rob Annicelli, who was a party to previous legal action seeking to block the casino. Annicelli did not return a call seeking comment.

William C. Knight III, chairman of the appeals board, said Thursday that he had not yet reviewed the appeal because county offices have been closed for most of the past two days because of the snowstorm. Its Thursday night meeting was canceled.

Knight said the board has the option of hearing appeals out of order, and the board would likely discuss the possibility of expediting the Cordish case at its next meeting. The board has 60 days from the date of the hearing to render a decision, Knight said.

The opponents' attorney, Harry C. Blumenthal, said in an e-mail Thursday evening that Cordish continues to modify traffic studies but has not come up with a plan for the flow of vehicles that will accompany the casino and restaurants.

"There is no intention to stop the Casino by this Appeal … that matter was decided during the last election," Blumenthal wrote. "However, the area residents and property owners are concerned that there is not in place specific and detailed plans for required improvements."

Blumenthal also denied being paid by gambling interests. "While I do not believe this type of Appeal requires much of my time, at the moment, I have no guarantee of funding from any source, although I would welcome funding from any source."

Cordish officials argued the company has complied with all state and local mandates concerning traffic improvements, and plans to add lanes, widen roadways and put up more traffic lights.

"We've met all of the legal requirements — and we're going well beyond that," said Joseph Weinberg, president of development at Cordish.

The County Council appoints the seven-member appeals board, which is tasked with rendering final decisions on appeals related to zonings, licenses, permits, and executive, administrative and judicatory orders, according to its website.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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