County seeking to shut out slots

Frederick officials begin to draft zoning legislation

`We need to be prepared'

Showdown with Assembly over parlor sites possible

March 28, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Even as bills to return slot machines to Maryland remain in limbo in the General Assembly, Frederick County - fearful of a House of Delegates plan to put 2,500 of the video lottery terminals inside its borders - is drawing up a local law to keep them out.

"Even if the proposal on the table in Annapolis doesn't get through this session, we still need to be prepared," said John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., president of the Frederick County commissioners. "The handwriting is on the wall."

Other jurisdictions might object to seeing slots parlors on their doorsteps - Cecil County's commissioners recently voted 3-2 against gambling there, while the town of Perryville appears ready to welcome it - but Frederick appears to be the first county to begin drafting legislation prohibiting the machines, in the form of an amendment to its zoning ordinances.

The rest of the state might be watching to see what happens. Should Frederick County succeed in keeping out gambling, other governments could follow suit, setting up a potential showdown with the General Assembly over who decides where slot machines go. Faced with new zoning regulations, the legislature could simply pass a law superceding local zoning to put slots wherever it wants - a power it already has used in situations such as the placement of utilities.

Counties' desires

"What's going on in Frederick County may be a litmus test," said Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, a Frederick County Republican, the only member of the county's House delegation to vote against the slots bill. Slots "ought to be where people want them. I haven't heard anyone call and say, `Slot machines are great right in my back yard.'"

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has said it would be all right to have slots at Laurel Park, if there were money for road upgrades and security around the venue. Those associated with the Rocky Gap Lodge in Allegany County have welcomed the idea of gambling there.

But in Prince George's County and Baltimore City, for example, delegates actively lobbied for this year's bills to leave their areas out as locations for slots parlors.

The slots legislation might be dead for this year - and few believe a slots bill can go anywhere in 2006 when the state's senators and delegates as well as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are up for re-election. But that doesn't mean Frederick County isn't worried. Last week, Thompson and his fellow commissioners directed staff to put together a change to the zoning ordinance expressly prohibiting slot machines in all parts of the county, including its municipalities, which have their own governments.

"History shows that the social costs of this are pretty considerable," Thompson said. "State government will get the revenue. The county government will end up with the costs."

After two years with no substantive movement toward a law allowing slot machines - an issue Ehrlich campaigned on - both the Maryland House and Senate passed slots bills this session. But the bills are different, particularly regarding the locations of slots parlors, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said he would change nothing in his chamber's bill. The House bill would put the machines in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Harford and Frederick counties.

Zoning locations

Thompson said he was surprised that five of six Frederick County delegates voted for legislation to bring slots home. As part of his direction to staff to draft the new zoning rules, he added: "As an alternative to outright prohibition of slot machine parlors, I would be amenable to allowing them in `Slot Machine' floating zones that would be legislatively defined as being within a one (1) mile radius of the residences of our delegation members who vote for slots."

It could take six months for a zoning change to be approved, he said.

Harford County Council President Robert S. Wagner said he isn't worried that approval of slot machines is imminent. He thinks it will be at least two more years - if not longer - before there is anything to deal with. He is against slots and thinks that if gambling did come to Harford County it might be necessary to write a zoning ordinance allowing slot machines. He isn't sure there is any place for them under current regulations.

Del. Paul S. Stull, a Republican who chairs the Frederick County delegation, said he thinks slot machines could benefit the county - but he doesn't want to get into a power struggle with county leaders.

"I'm not one to want to fight the county commissioners. I think that's all wrong," Stull said. "There'll be counties who'll take them."

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