ANNAPOLIS — Tuesday’s Court of Appeals decision allowing a referendum on the ballot in Anne Arundel County could nix the state’s largest planned casino development and set back slots progress in Maryland for years, some say.
Opponents of the casino planned by David Cordish near the Arundel Mills mall succeeded in their appeal to overturn an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court decision blocking the referendum. The state’s highest court issued an order little more than an hour after hearing oral arguments Tuesday morning.
An attorney for the casino opponents, including the Maryland Jockey Club and citizens groups against slots at the mall, said the decision rightly upheld the people’s right to petition. The jockey club operates Laurel Park, and had its slots bid rejected because it did not include a $28.5 million licensing fee.
Now, the anti-slots groups are gearing up for a little more than three months of heavy campaigning.
“We need to spend time educating the voters so they know exactly what they’re voting on,” said Rob Annicelli, president of Stop Slots at the Mall. “That’s going to be one of the biggest challenges we will have.”
The referendum will put a zoning bill, which was passed by the County Council last year and signed by County Executive John Leopold, up to a vote in November. The bill designates zoning for slots at Cordish’s casino site and at Laurel Park. That means if county voters reject the zoning, Anne Arundel County will be starting at “square one” with slots, said Donald C. Fry, chairman of the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, which awards slots licenses.
“We’ve approved Cordish’s proposal; it can’t move forward absent zoning,” Fry said. “We hypothetically can wait until the county alternately passed a zoning regulation stating what lands are available for slots and which ones are not available, but that will cause significant delay.”
If that is the case, the state will likely have to ask for new bids for the slots license for Anne Arundel County. MI Developments Inc., the new owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, has said it would bid to get a slots license for Laurel.
Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas was not available to comment.
Fry noted Anne Arundel County has been slow to move on slots — last year, the council stalled for months on approving zoning for Cordish’s site, even after Gov. Martin O’Malley demanded that officials move on the issue.
That was in August. The council approved zoning in December.
“It got to be a situation where we almost had to force the issue,” Fry said. “We [the commission] originally said they had to determine zoning first, but we were finally at point where we had the [bid] before us, gave preliminary approval and then had to wait for them still.”
O’Malley issued a statement Tuesday in support of the Court of Appeals decision.
“I have always preferred that these slots locations be limited to race tracks,” he said, “but this is a local zoning issue that should be decided by the people of Anne Arundel County.”
County voters will also be deciding who will fill County Council seats and the county executive seat this fall, and changes in the political makeup could further delay any decisions on zoning, should voters strike down Cordish’s zoning. Leopold, a Republican, is running against Democratic business executive Joanna Conti.
In a statement Tuesday, Cordish called the decision a “tremendous loss” for Maryland taxpayers and the horse racing industry, but said he believed that the county voters, “who voted overwhelmingly to approve slots in the state will do so again.”
He added his casino meant 4,000 jobs and $400 million in annual tax revenue for Maryland.
“It is a travesty that billions of dollars are leaving the state each year to be spent in casinos in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, with no benefit to the state of Maryland,” said Cordish, who attended Tuesday’s oral arguments.
Some in the horse industry are disappointed with the decision because it means more delay in reaping the revenue from slots. Roughly 9 percent of slots revenue is designated for a horse breeders fund and for a purse fund to pump up horse racing purses in Maryland.
“The experience I’ve seen at other tracks is it’s not having a casino at the track, it’s having the revenues to increase purses which increase [wagering] and attendance,” said Steuart Pittman Jr., president of the Maryland Horse Council.
Pittman said the horse council does not have an opinion on the issue, but chose not to join forces with the jockey club during the petition drive earlier this year.
“It’s going to be a mess,” Pittman said. “My fear is that the racing industry worked so hard to get a slots law in Maryland and if we overturn zoning [that would] implement that slots law in the biggest county, how are we going to have any leverage with legislators in the future?”