Ocean Downs Must Race To Retain Zoning

BERLIN – With the summer-long live racing meet at Ocean Downs now an impossibility because of the ongoing renovation and expansion of the grandstand area to accommodate the future slots venue at the historic track, it now appears a single race or day of racing might be needed to meet the county’s requirements for the zoning of the property.

Track officials last week confirmed the summer’s live meet at Ocean Downs was in jeopardy because of the ongoing construction and renovations to the existing grandstand at the historic track. This week, it was learned a section in Worcester County’s zoning code could require at least some sort of live racing at the facility in the next several months in order to avoid losing a special exception on the property that has existed for decades.

Worcester County Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor this week explained the county has always considered slots at Ocean Downs as an accessory use to the principle use of the property as a racetrack, which is treated as a special exception on the agriculturally-zone property and has been for 60-plus years. Without the special exception that allows the racetrack on the property, slots as an accessory use to the special exception isn’t viable.

“It’s considered a conforming special exception even though that racetrack existed long before there even was a zoning code,” he said.

A condition of the special exception of the racetrack is that there is live racing within a 12-month period. With the summer-long live meet at Ocean Downs now impossible because of the delays in the grandstand construction, it appears unlikely the track will be able to satisfy the requirement in the code in the traditional sense, but Tudor said a single race or a day of racing could meet the standard.

“The issue becomes, are they going to have live racing within 12 months?” he said. “It could be hard to do based on what they’re dealing with right now, but there are ways of getting around it. That section of the code is not that specific. It doesn’t say how many live races must be held or even if it has to be horses. It doesn’t say what kind of animals it has to be.”

Tudor said the track owners would likely find a way to satisfy the conditions of the special exception, particularly with all that’s at stake with slots. He also said the county’s intent is not to press the issue and would likely work with the track.

“There is no way they are going to abandon that special exception,” he said. “Clearly, there is no intent on their part to do that.”

Last week, Ocean Enterprise 589 Chief Operating Officer William Fasy confirmed the ongoing construction associated with the development of a slots venue at Ocean Downs make a live racing meet this summer impossible. However, Fasy said this week track officials would find a way to satisfy zoning requirements.

“We’ll meet any requirement we have to,” he said. “We will not lose the special exception. If we have to do one race or one day of racing, we’ll do that. I’m not certain at this point what the solution is, but there is a solution.”

Fasy said track officials were somewhat taken aback by the discovery of the live racing requirement for the special exception, particularly the time frame.

“The whole special exception issue came as a surprise to us,” he said. “I was under the impression it was 24 months, but it turned out to be one year.”

Further complicating the issue, the track has contractual obligations with the horsemen who train and race there each summer. Last spring, after somewhat controversial negotiations, track officials reached a contract with the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, which represents the horsemen, guaranteeing live racing at Ocean Downs through 2012 at least, regardless of what happened with the slots approval. Fasy said the track would find a way to honor its commitment to the horsemen.

“I’m not overly concerned about it,” he said. “We are negotiating in good faith with the horsemen and we’ll do whatever is required of us to honor our agreement. We’ve said that all along and we will do whatever it takes to honor that.”

One option, although perhaps the least palatable to both the track and the horsemen, is moving the live meet to the Rosecroft racetrack in Prince George’s County for one summer.

“We are in negotiations with Rosecroft, but moving our live meet to Rosecroft doesn’t solve our problem with the special exception,” he said.

Eight hundred slot machines are planned for the track in the short term and a potential to expand to as many as 1,500 in the future. After the lottery commission awarded Ocean Downs the first slots license in the state, the initial plan called for an opening of the new venue by Memorial Day. However, the start date was moved back indefinitely in December when a preliminary investigation of the old grandstand area revealed problems with asbestos and the structural steel of the old facility and a new opening date for slots is now targeted for November.