Arundel Mills slots foes appeal rejection of referendum

Opponents challenge largest proposed casino before state's high court

(Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
June 29, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Opponents of a planned slots parlor at Arundel Mills are asking the state's highest court to overturn a judge's decision to block a ballot referendum challenging the zoning for the project.

Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney representing the Maryland Jockey Club, which financed the referendum effort, filed a petition with the Court of Special Appeals late Monday. The petition seeks to reverse a lower court's decision striking down a ballot referendum on slots in Anne Arundel County.

The case is expected to bypass the intermediate appellate court and be heard this summer by the Court of Appeals. Rifkin is also representing the community group Citizens Against Slots at the Mall.

"The right to petition government is one of the most significant rights held by voters in this or any other state," Rifkin said in a statement. "It should not be denied to the people of Anne Arundel County without express statutory language."

If it stands up on appeal, the lower court's decision would pave the way for the construction of Maryland's largest slots casino. Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. plans to build a 4,750-seat slots parlor in the Arundel Mills parking lot.

Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled Friday that the referendum was illegal 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.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday that the governor supports "the citizens' right to be heard" through the legal process. His comments came in response to a letter from Rob Annicelli, president of Stop Slots at the Mall, which asked for O'Malley's support. Annicelli's group is another citizen protest organization.

"There is no shortage of people who feel strongly on this issue, and each side should be given their opportunity to exhaust all scenarios in the appropriate venue," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley.

A Cordish subsidiary mounted a lawsuit earlier this year, after the Jockey Club and the citizens groups began gathering signatures for a countywide referendum on slots. The county board of elections certified about 23,000 signatures of the 40,000 signatures submitted. About 19,000 were required for a referendum.

On Tuesday, a coalition of community groups opposed to the casino held a news conference at which activists decried the lower court's decision as an assault on citizens' rights.

"We're talking about the right to petition our government — one of the most fundamental rights we have as citizens," said Annicelli. "Forget the slots issue, we're basically being told you can't have a referendum if it's tied to closely to an appropriation. This decision has the potential to do tremendous damage to the rights of the voters."

David Jones, who lives at Arundel Preserve, a development near the mall, opposes the Cordish casino.

"All we want is the opportunity to give the citizens a choice," said Jones. "That is a basic American right."

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