Decisions call bingo's future into question

For-profit operation faces opposition in getting license

Community values noted

County commission asks state to consider prohibition on games

January 21, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Two decisions this week by county officials have brought commercial bingo under scrutiny, and could signal an end to a half-century of gaming in Anne Arundel County.

This week, five County Council members sponsored legislation to limit the number of commercial licenses in the county to three and to ask the Amusement License Commission to study whether commercial bingo should be allowed any more.

Anne Arundel is one of the last places in the country outside Nevada and Indian reservations that allow commercial bingo, where games are played for profit rather than charity.

In the second decision, Richard Wilcox, interim director for the departments of planning and code enforcement, agreed with the commission's earlier recommendation to deny a license to a company that had hoped to open a commercial bingo parlor on the Broadneck Peninsula.

"Zoning and planning laws and regulations reflect the values of a community as they evolve over time," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, one of the five to sponsor the legislation.

"The reaction on the Broadneck Peninsula was very strong and very focused, and it is our job as legislators to respond to those values of the community," Samorajczyk said yesterday.

If the bill passes -- which is likely, with only one council member, Bill D. Burlison, declining to sponsor it -- the commission will study the economic benefit to the county and the concerns of residents, much as a similar commission did under council orders in 1991.

That commission found commercial bingo was overall an asset to the county, bringing in about $500,000 a year in amusement taxes, but that it was too loosely regulated. The commission's recommendations, which were adopted, required parlor owners to pass "character" tests and required a nonrefundable $25,000 fee to apply for a new license.

The proposed legislation would rescind that fee -- as no new bingo licenses would be permitted -- but would reimburse Bay 50 Inc., the company that sought the new license.

Samorajczyk said the council thought that returning the money was the fair thing to do. The bill essentially kills any chance the company has with the county Board of Appeals, Samorajczyk said, in overcoming rejection for a license by the commission and the departments of planning and code enforcement.

As part of that decision, Wilcox cited many of the commission's concerns about zoning and accessibility. But he also wrote that Bay 50 failed to properly register with the Secretary of State's Office. Though the company has been running charitable bingo in Baltimore County since 1992, officials with the Secretary of State's Office said they first heard from the group in November.

He also questioned the group's finances and "undisclosed" business partners.

"The financial ability of the applicants to operate the bingo games is questionable," Wilcox wrote. "The assets of the principals do not substantiate the [projected funding]."

Bay 50 attorney Alan Hyatt said Wilcox's conclusions were "misleading."

"Their capital was being raised from investors and they have plenty of financial backing," Hyatt said yesterday. "We gave the commission everything they asked for."

Hyatt said he planned to meet with his clients soon to decide whether to appeal by the 30-day deadline.

"The proposed legislation will weigh very heavily on the decision as to whether we should appeal," he said.

Anne M. Hatcher, who is with the planning department and oversees the county's commercial bingo operations, said it doesn't look promising for Bay 50, or the other three parlors.

"A number of residents have expressed a disenchantment with having commercial bingo at all," she said. "What happens from here remains to be seen."

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