Slots at Arundel Mills faces voters, court challenge

March 13, 2010|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

Though Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. has prevailed in state and county proceedings to move forward with plans to build a slots casino at Arundel Mills mall, it remains locked in a contentious battle in the courts of law and public opinion now that an effort to force a referendum appears successful.

The coalition group Citizens Against Slots had a victory this week when the Anne Arundel County Elections Board accepted enough of its petition signatures to get a referendum on slots on the ballot in November. The effort is being financed by the Maryland Jockey Club, which hopes to bring slots to Magna Entertainment Corp.'s Laurel Park.

But Cordish, which won county zoning approval in December, sued the elections board last month, contending that it failed to detect what the suit characterized as widespread fraud in the petition drive.

The long process that Cordish underwent to obtain the green light to build the 4,750-machine parlor on the mall parking lot from both state and county officials lends credence to its battle against the referendum, said James Karmel, an associate professor of history at Harford Community College and an unpaid adviser for the Maryland Gaming Association.

"Ultimately, Cordish has a very good chance to come out on top of this," said Karmel. "They're not going to let anything slide. They know it's not as much about the local homeowners as much as it's about Magna trying to block it. They've got the money to pay for the legal effort to fight it. They're right to stand up and say, 'We've got a tremendous investment in this.' They went through a very long and excruciating process to get a zoning license."

But with a referendum, "it's a crapshoot," Karmel said.

James Praley, the attorney for the Board of Elections, said he and Cordish's attorneys are working to finalize a schedule with the court to ensure that the lawsuit is concluded by November's election.

"This case, by law, has to be expedited to meet the requirements of the election law," said Praley. "The court will find a judge. They'll set a trial date. And they'll allow adequate time for someone to appeal. I'm sure of it."

The Maryland Jockey Club, which still holds out hope that either Laurel Park's bankrupt owners or a new entity might be awarded the Anne Arundel County slots franchise, has spent more than a half-million dollars on the referendum effort.

Magna bid for the county's sole slots license but was rejected because it didn't pay the required state fees. The state awarded the license to Cordish, which in its suit contends that the Jockey Club has a "substantial financial interest" in overturning Cordish's slots license.

The Jockey Club thinks that slots can rescue the dying horse racing industry. Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, said Friday that he wouldn't rule out legal action against Cordish and "for the betterment of the racing industry, it's very important for slots to be at Laurel."

"Whether it's Magna or a new company, we have the same position: Slots belong at the racetrack to help the industry survive and grow," Chuckas said, adding, "I believe it would be fair to say that when it's the appropriate time to protect our interests we will intervene."

David S. Cordish, president and chairman of the Cordish Cos., said he's confident his lawsuit will be successful at stopping the referendum. He said he remains on target for opening what would be the state's most lucrative slots site in fall 2011.

"There's no chance at all for the referendum," said Cordish. "We already had a referendum on slots. So we are proceeding. We're proceeding with drawings, engineering and permitting. You might ask, 'Are you putting your money where your mouth is?' Yes, we are proceeding full speed ahead."

Bruce Marcus, a Greenbelt-based attorney with expertise in Maryland election law, said a recent Court of Appeals ruling on referendums could be helpful to Cordish's case.

Under the new rules that the state elections board imposed in March 2009, petition signers must use either their full name, including middle initials, or sign their name exactly as it appears on elections board voting rolls. In addition, a printed name required on a petition must exactly match the accompanying signature.

"Before, it used to be almost impossible to overturn a referendum effort when an election board certifies the signatures," Marcus said. "But with this new decision, creating an almost picture-perfect requirement, it will make it that much more difficult to get issues placed on the ballot. That would play in Cordish's favor."

The Board of Elections has until March 25 to complete the validation process, at which time it would certify the accepted signatures. As of Thursday, it has accepted 19,054 of the submitted 40,407 signatures, more than the necessary 18,970.

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