Maryland's highest court agreed Tuesday to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that rejected a ballot referendum on slot machines at an Anne Arundel County mall.
If upheld, the lower court decision would pave the way for construction of the state's largest slots casino by the Cordish Cos. at Arundel Mills mall. The Baltimore-based company wants to build a 4,750-machine slots parlor, but the plan is being challenged by nearby residents and by the Maryland Jockey Club, which wants to build a casino at its Laurel Park racetrack.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled last month that a referendum would be illegal because the county zoning legislation that authorizes the billion-dollar casino is part of an appropriations package. Under state law, voters cannot decide on appropriations at the ballot box.
Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney representing the Maryland Jockey Club and the group Citizens Against Slots at the Mall, said in an e-mail that planning and zoning ordinances have always been subject to referendum.
"When the people voted in 2008 to legalize slots facilities, they did so with a clear understanding that those facilities were subject to all local planning and zoning laws," Rifkin said. The zoning ordinance for slots "neither makes nor contains any appropriation for the current expense of county government and should be placed on the ballot."
Joe Weinberg, a principal in the Cordish Cos. said in an e-mail that he believes the lower court's reasoning is sound, but he was not surprised by the decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals to hear the case.
"We are absolutely confident that Circuit Court's decision is correct and will be upheld by the Court of Appeals," Weinberg said. "All parties knew from the beginning that the matter would end up at the Court of Appeals, and we are grateful the court has agreed to accommodate our schedule and hear the case quickly."
The Court of Appeals expedited the case, scheduling arguments July 20. Written legal arguments are due on a staggered schedule that starts Friday. The Jockey Club had financed the referendum drive by citizens groups that oppose the slots parlor at the mall.
A Cordish subsidiary filed a lawsuit after the Jockey Club and the citizens groups began collecting signatures to gain a countywide referendum on slots zoning. The county Board of Elections certified about 23,000 of the 40,000 signatures submitted. About 19,000 were required to gain a referendum.
Issues in the case include whether a referendum can be used; whether the opponents' petition was defective because each page did not include the circulator's personal statement; and whether Silkworth should have considered arguments that the petition contained fraud, misrepresentation and forgery. While Silkworth largely rejected those contentions, the Court of Appeals could take them up again.
The Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, bypassing the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appeals court.
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