Anti-Slots Petition Filed, Now What?
By Lynda Sasscer Hill
On February, 4, 2010, the coalition of petitioners, including (but not limited to) the Maryland Jockey Club and the local activist group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, surprised skeptics by submitting over 23,000 signatures to the Anne Arundel Board of Elections, exceeding the 18,790 needed to override the County Council’s approval of the Cordish slots zoning request (known as Bill 82-09), instead putting the request before the voters.
“Without question, there is overwhelming opposition by Anne Arundel County citizens to placing a casino at Arundel Mills Mall,” claimed Rob Annicelli, president of the citizens group Stop Slots at Arundel Mills. “The mall is not the right location for a slots casino and is not in the best interests of the citizens of Anne Arundel County.”
Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said, “We are confident, that if given the choice, the people of Anne Arundel County will choose a more appropriate location for 4,750 slot machines that will benefit our county, our state and the thousands of jobs in the horse racing industry.” The more appropriate location, of course, would be Laurel Park.
However, according to a February 5 the Baltimore Sun article, Cordish managing partner Joseph Weinberg has charged that there are “massive irregularities” in the petition drive.
“Upon review, we are confident the referendum will be struck down as both legally invalid and lacking in the requisite valid signatures,” Weinberg is quoted by the Baltimore Sun.
When I called the Anne Arundel County Elections Board on the afternoon of the deadline for the submission of signatures, five hours into the biggest Maryland snowstorm in decades, I was astonished when David Garris, Deputy Director of the elections board, answered the phone himself on the second ring. He said he’d grabbed the phone because his staff was too busy processing the “Stop Slots at Arundel Mills” petition forms.
What happens next?
Slots are “not dead” in Maryland. There is a written state law naming Anne Arundel County as a location for slots gambling. The Anne Arundel County Council voted to accept both bills: Bill 81-09 and 82-09. The specific location written into Bill 81-09 allows slots gambling only at Laurel Park. The second bill, 82-09 allows gambling at either the Arundel Mills location or at Laurel Park.
Council Executive John R. Leopold, however, vetoed 81-09, which left 82-09 in place – the bill allowing slots at either of the two locations. Currently, only the Arunel Mills site has the green light from the Video Lottery Commission (i.e. the “Slots Commission”).
The De Francis family has aggressively campaigned that Laurel Park spent from 2003 to 2009 successfully securing Federal, State, County and Local permitting and regulatory approvals, and that the track is poised to begin immediate construction of a Video Lottery Terminal gaming facility, if they could get zoning approval from the Anne Arundel County Council. Of course, MJC would still need to submit a bid to the Video Lottery Commission, a process that MJC’s parent company, Magna Entertainment botched last spring.
Is there any fast track legal procedure that could take place to push the zoning through more quickly, if, for example, Magna Entertainment were to ask for slots zoning at Laurel Park? Is it possible for the Council to avoid a lengthy application process?
According to Anne Arundel County Council Member Catherine Vitale, when County Executive John R. Leopold vetoed bill 81-09, the bill for slots at Laurel only, the bill expired and can be considered “dead.” If this current petition is successful, then the second bill, 82-09 will be “stayed” and remain in that status until the November 2010 elections. The voters will decide whether to vote for or against bill 82-09, the bill that allows slots at either Laurel or Anne Arundel Mills. If they vote the bill down, then this issue will have to come up before the new council that will take office in December of 2010.
So, if the voters in November vote against 82-09, in addition to voting against slots zoning for Arundel Mills, they will also be voting against slots zoning for Laurel Park. That does not necessarily mean that MJC couldn’t then go get zoning just for Laurel Park. It just means that the process has to start over.
Vitale explained that, while the Council can not fast track slots zoning at any location, because the County is still very interested in receiving its fair share of slots revenue from slots, the Council will remain open to slots zoning somewhere in the County.
- These petitions must be duly processed and certified by the board of elections. If they are, this zoning ordinance will be placed on the 2010 ballot and will allow Anne Arundel County citizens to vote on whether or not to permit the state’s largest slots casino at either the Arundel Mills Mall or Laurel Park.
- If the County Council’s decision to place the slots at Arundel Mills is overturned by the voters in November, then whoever owns Laurel Park must file an application for a zoning change with the Anne Arundel County Office of Planning and Zoning if they wish to secure slots zoning.
- Once the application is filed, the Office of Planning and Zoning will submit a list of applications to the Administrative Hearing Officer to schedule hearings.
- Not more than 30 days after receipt of the applications list, the Administrative Hearing Officer will schedule a hearing and notify the applicant.
- The Administrative Hearing Officer will conduct a public hearing on the application. The hearing may be continued from time to time, with the time and place of the next hearing date announced publicly.
- The applicant, the County, and any other person deemed qualified by the Administrative Hearing Officer may introduce evidence and testify.
- The Administrative Hearing Officer will grant or deny an application in accordance with law. The Administrative Hearing Officer’s decision will be based on the evidence presented at the hearing and observations made during any site visit.
Will This Affect Potential Bidders for The Tracks?
Jeffrey Seder of the Blow Horn Equity group still plans to bid on the race tracks whether or not the slots finally go to Laurel, and he is now expecting there to be more of a bidding frenzy at the auction (currently scheduled for February 23).
“We could get slots up and running at a temporary facility as fast at Laurel Racetrack as Cordish Co. can at the Mall. And, there is a HUGE difference to Maryland racing whether the 1/3 of all the slots take goes to the slots operator, who is a enormous corporate real estate development company in Florida, and all over the country, etc. or to the local MARYLAND racetracks.”
While Weinburg has ominously warned, with the success of this petition, that Maryland is sliding down the slippery slope of not having slots at all, Seder vehemently disagrees. “The slots approval will not go away — the voters have already spoken decisively and the state desperately needs the money.”
Seder noted that Penn National lost in its bid for gaming in New York and will probably take those funds and put them toward a Laurel bid. He indicated there are a number of bidders that are deeply funded, and the bidding could get rough.
Horsemen are anxiously awaiting the auction, hopeful that the new owner will have both deep pockets and an abiding love of the sport. Seder is playing on those desires and fears, aggressively marketing Blow Horn Equity as “the” horsemen’s choice, based on experience, love of the sport and plenty of capital, while at the same time simultaneously pointing out that some companies, such as Cordish and Penn National, have other motives for owning the tracks, such as gaming or land acquisition.
Many in the horse industry fear that track ownership by a company that doesn’t have the horse racing industry at heart will only strengthen the hands of Maryland politicians intent on siphoning the income away from the Maryland horse industry.
In Karin De Francis’ inpasioned speech at the Maryland Horse Council Meeting January 21, many saw in her the spirit of her father, Frank De Francis, who put his whole heart and soul into Maryland racing, leading it to unprecedented heights in the 1980s. That legacy is firing the De Francis siblings to promise unequivocally that no other track bidder will try harder or care more about making Maryland racing successful as will they.
On The Bright Side
While we wait to see what happens between the track auction – now rescheduled for February 23 — and further machinations by the Anne Arundel County Council, I still see a light in this story.
How American for two normally opposed groups to form an alliance to achieve a goal that they believe will benefit both parties. Rob Annicelli and his activists don’t want slots in their neighborhood. They don’t want the additional traffic, or the strain on fire and police departments. They did everything good citizens can do to protest the Arundel Mills slots location, and were ignored by their County Council.
Many in Maryland racing were appalled at the idea of the slots going to a shopping mall instead of at the customary, expected location of the racetracks. They believe that it just makes sense to have the slots at the racetracks. Others thought that, in supporting the petition, horsemen might be cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
Regardless of the future owner for which one is rooting, regardless of whether or not one believes that filing the petition to slow down slots at Arundel Mills is constructive or destructive, it is fascinating – and inspiring – to watch Maryland’s democratic process in action.
Lynda Sasscer Hill, a native Maryland horsewoman, is a Thoroughbred breeder and a published author of short stories. Lynda has been following the trials and tribulations of Maryland’s racing industry on her blog, and will be providing Equiery readers with regular updates.
To read more about those interested in bidding: