Anne Arundel County voters will decide in November whether to allow Maryland's most lucrative slots casino to be built at Arundel Mills mall, after the state's highest court ruled Tuesday that a referendum challenging zoning for the project should be placed on the ballot.
Supporters and opponents likely will mount vigorous campaigns leading up to the fall election, and observers say higher turnout in Anne Arundel could have an impact on the races for governor and county executive.
Questions over the 4,750-machine casino, proposed by the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., extend the uncertainty over Maryland's struggling slots program. Anne Arundel slots were supposed to provide a key chunk of the hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenue that Maryland is depending on over the next several years.
Proponents of the referendum heralded Tuesday's ruling as protecting a public right to petition their government, while the project's developer argued that further delays would cost the state crucial tax revenue.
Cordish has been wrangling with the Maryland Jockey Club and community groups for months — since the Anne Arundel County Council passed a zoning change that cleared the way for the Arundel Mills project. The Jockey Club wants to build a slots parlor at its Laurel Park race track instead, and many nearby residents don't want the project near Arundel Mills.
"The Cordish company owes the people of Anne Arundel County an apology for what they've put us through," said Rob Annicelli, president of Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, one of the groups in a coalition that led a petition drive — financed by the Jockey Club — for the referendum.
The referendum question was rejected by a lower court last month, before the Court of Appeals revived it Tuesday.
The state has already granted Cordish a license for its proposed casino, but it's unclear what that will mean if zoning for the project is rejected. Voters approved five locations for Maryland's slots program in November 2008, but no casinos are operating yet, and the two largest — in Arundel and Baltimore City — have been mired in delay.
Donald C. Fry, chairman of the state's Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, which granted Cordish its license, said if the zoning gets voted down, Anne Arundel would be "back at square one" with no land in the county zoned for slots.
Fry said Cordish is required under the license to show that it complies with county laws, but the commission has latitude to grant extensions under extenuating circumstances, which would apply under the referendum. Fry said he would not speculate whether the Cordish license would be in danger if the referendum passes.
"Slots is going to have to be in the county. The state Constitution says that there will be slots in that area," he said. "The voters will have the opportunity to determine whether they agree or disagree with the County Council's zoning decision. Depending on which way they go, our members will sit down and figure out what we want to do."
Many in the county thought slots would come to Laurel Park and were surprised when Cordish applied to build a casino at the mall.
In a statement, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said he agreed with the court's decision — and hinted that he would not object if slots wound up in Laurel instead.
"Today, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the right for the people of Anne Arundel County to have their voices heard on whether slots should be located at Arundel Mills Shopping Mall, and I support that decision," O'Malley said. "I have always preferred that these slots locations be limited to race tracks, but this is a local zoning issue that should be decided by the people of Anne Arundel County, just as Marylanders overwhelmingly approved the slots referendum in 2008."
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican challenging O'Malley in the fall, said in a statement that the state legislature's failure to approve slots during his tenure as governor has put the state in a "perilous fiscal situation."
"By repeatedly opposing my slots legislation, the General Assembly declined upwards of $800 million in annual revenue and exacerbated the structural budget deficit the state currently faces," Ehrlich said. "The court has now rendered its decision. Now it is time for the voters to be heard."
Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled in June that the referendum was illegal because the zoning legislation to authorize the billion-dollar casino was part of an appropriation package. According to state law, appropriations — or spending allowances — cannot be decided upon by voters at the ballot box.
The Court of Appeals apparently disagreed with that reasoning, though the judges' full explanation was not available Tuesday; the decision came in a two-page document and will be expanded later.