(Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge struck down a ballot referendum Friday challenging a planned slots parlor at Arundel Mills mall, a decision that opponents have vowed to appeal to the state's highest court.
The referendum is not legal, Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled, because the zoning legislation to authorize the billion-dollar casino is part of an appropriation package. According to state law, appropriations — or spending allowances — cannot be decided upon by voters at the ballot box.
The ruling represents a victory for the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., an influential development firm whose planned casino could be one of the state's most lucrative. Still, the judge rejected many of the company's highest-profile complaints, which focused on alleged fraud in the signature-gathering process.
Instead, Silkworth relied on a similar, precedent-setting 1987 case in which the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's plan to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards could not be put to referendum.
In a 47-page opinion, Silkworth wrote that the constitutional amendment to allow slots approved by state voters in 2008 "would be delayed and thwarted, if not fatally undermined" if the zoning were put to a county referendum.
Joseph Weinberg, a managing member at the Cordish subsidiary PPE Maryland Resorts Casino LLC, said in a statement that the court's ruling is a "tremendous victory" for taxpayers.
"Our facility at Arundel Mills will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes for the state and county, when these funds are urgently needed," said Weinberg. "Between construction and permanent jobs, our facility at Arundel Mills will create thousands of new, quality jobs at a time when they are desperately needed."
The decision would be a major step forward for the state's fledgling slots program if it holds up on appeal. Three of five available slots licenses have been awarded, but opening dates have been set in only two locations. Sites in Baltimore City and Allegany County are stalled and have no qualified bidders.
Anne Arundel County is depending on the revenue from the Arundel Mills project, but local officials said because an appeal was imminent, any movement on construction was unlikely.
Lawyers for the Maryland Jockey Club, which financed the referendum effort in hopes of steering slots to its Laurel Park property, vowed to continue the legal fight.
Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney for the jockey club and two community opposition groups, said he was "confident" his side would be successful on appeal.
"When the people voted in 2008 to allow slots facilities, they did so with a clear understanding that those facilities were subject to all planning and zoning laws," Rifkin said in a statement. "There has been no appropriation of any revenue from a slots facility yet in the state that would prevent [the question] from being placed on the ballot."
A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley declined to comment.
After the 2008 statewide slots referendum, many assumed the Arundel slots parlor would be located at Laurel. But the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the Jockey Club, did not pay the mandatory deposit to bid on slots.
Cordish didn't have an easy ride. Despite putting down $28.5 million in licensing fees, the company waited nearly 10 months for a divided Anne Arundel County Council to approve the necessary zoning.
Opponents of the planned casino and entertainment complex at the mall, including neighbors who fear an increase in crime and traffic, have led the fight for the countywide referendum. The community groups, with funding from the Jockey Club and help from a paid consultant, began collecting signatures soon after the zoning legislation passed.
Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, which sponsored the petition drive, submitted more than 40,000 signatures for a referendum question. Nearly 23,000 signatures were deemed valid by the county election board, which certified the results in April. The petitioners needed about 18,000 valid signatures for a referendum to be called.
An attorney for the Cordish subsidiary, Andrew C. White of the Baltimore firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White, filed suit in February alleging "massive fraud" on the part of the petition gatherers — mostly workers from a company called FieldWorks. The suit also contended that the county elections board failed to detect irregularities in the petition.
The judge heard seven days of testimony from Cordish lawyers, mostly centered on the contentions of petition fraud, but Silkworth rejected that argument.
Rifkin said the judge's reliance on the Camden Yards case is "completely misplaced."
"Zoning bills have always been subject to referendum," Rifkin said, "And [this bill] is no exception. [The Camden Yards] case dealt with one consolidated legislative package, passed by the General Assembly, not two separate bills passed by the state and a local government."
Rob Annicelli, who lives near the mall and is president of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, which helped lead the effort for a county referendum, said Friday that he was "disappointed."
"We feel cheated," said Annicelli. "It feels like a bait-and-switch … but apparently the court doesn't think that's the case here. I'm sure this won't be the final word."
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