First Click, Maryland
As one casino opens, another hangs in the balance
Friday, Sept. 24, 2010:
With Maryland's first slots casino set to open next week in Cecil County, it seemed an appropriate moment to ponder the predicament that state officials could have on their hands if voters in Anne Arundel County undermine plans for the state's largest casino in November.
On Election Day, Anne Arundel voters get to decide whether to allow a local zoning law to stand that is needed for Cordish Cos. to move forward with its planned 4,750-machine facility in a stand-alone building outside the food court at Arundel Mills mall.
Monied interests are airing television ads on both sides, and the outcome is anyone's guess at this point. But there's a real chance voters could reject the zoning legislation.
Speaking to reporters this week inside the nearly complete Hollywood Casino Perryville, which has 1,500 machines, Donald C. Fry, the chairman of the state commission that picks slots locations, said he remains "hopeful" that the Arundel Mills casino will move forward.
If the ballot measure fails, Fry allowed: "We are back to square one in Anne Arundel County, where we were as of November 2008."
That's when voters statewide authorized five areas for possible slots venues, including one defined as within two miles of Route 295 in Anne Arundel.
From a procedural standpoint, Fry shared one crucial thing: If zoning is rejected by voters, his commission plans to wait for the Anne Arundel County Council to pass another zoning bill before deciding whether to reject Cordish's plan and solicit other bids for the Anne Arundel facility.
It took the better part of a drama-filled year for the Anne Arundel Council to pass the bill that will appear on November's ballot. It's on the ballot because opponents of the site -- including the operators of Laurel Park racetrack -- mounted a successful petition drive to put it there.
Because of term limits and other factors, at least five of the seven Anne Arundel Council members will be new after the November elections. So don't expect quick action on another zoning bill.
And there seems to be no consensus about what another zoning bill might look like. Often lost in the debate is the fact that the zoning law on the ballot is not specific to Arundel Mills. It also would allow slots at Laurel and several other locations in the 295 corridor with the same current zoning.
In theory, the council could pass a new slots zoning bill so restrictive that Laurel becomes the only practical location for a casino. Perhaps that is the most likely outcome. But that arguably runs counter to the state legislation, which was intended to foster competition within the 295 corridor.
In theory, the council could pass the same zoning bill again that voters reject. But that seems politically tone deaf -- and that bill would likely get petitioned to referendum again.
If all this drags on too long, state lawmakers -- and either Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) or Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) -- are bound to get frustrated with Anne Arundel officials. But they have no quick solutions either.
In theory, the legislature could try to move the Anne Arundel slots site to another county. But the five host counties were written into the state Constitution with passage of the November 2008 statewide ballot measure. Changing that would require another statewide vote, presumably in November 2012.
In the meantime, perhaps we'll see you in Cecil County.
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| September 24, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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