SNOW HILL – A new overlay district could bring the Ocean Downs Casino more in line with local zoning.
Last week, the Worcester County Planning Commission voted unanimously to give a favorable recommendation to a new casino overlay zone proposed by the Ocean Downs Casino. Currently, the property is zoned A-2 agricultural and the casino is permitted as an accessory use to the racetrack. The proposed amendment would create an overlay zone that would allow for more entertainment uses on the site.
“It resolves an anomaly which is now there, that the only reason we can be there is because we’re in conjunction with the racetrack,” said Joe Moore, the attorney representing the casino.
Moore said that while the casino property had been home to a racetrack since at least the middle of the last century, it had undergone a metamorphosis in recent years.
“Not to mix a metaphor but the tail, which is the casino, is wagging the horse, which is the racetrack,” Moore said.
He said that when the casino was first approved, it was permitted as an accessory use to the racetrack. He said a text amendment creating a casino overlay zone would more accurately reflect the property’s uses.
“The interesting thing is that it does not result in the traditional rezoning,” Moore said. “It is meant to be a careful text change which relates to just casino operations so that it’s not a rezoning that you can put a casino anywhere in a C-2, C-3 district in Worcester County.”
Commission member Brooks Clayville expressed concern about what the text amendment would mean for harness racing.
“I want to be assured that there’s not anything in this text amendment that conflicts with your ability to operate a casino and more importantly that there’s nothing in here that would make horse racing go away,” he said.
Bobbi Sample, general manager of Ocean Downs Casino, said that was not the casino’s intention.
“We have no plans to do away with horse racing at Ocean Downs,” she said. “It’s actually beneficial to the casino when we do have live racing in the summer. In fact you can see that reflected in our results from July. We are the only smaller casino in the state that’s actually down year over year. I believe a big part of that is we did not have the crowds from the racing in and out of the casino.”
Clayville also asked if there was a prohibition related to the construction of a hotel on the casino property. Moore said the state legislation said that no hotel could be on the site if it had a direct or indirect legal relationship to the casino. He added that commercially zoned properties surrounding the casino could become hotel sites at any time.
Jay Knerr, chair of the commission, asked if Moore had consulted the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, since Ocean City had been the “driving force” behind the hotel restriction.
Moore said he had not consulted the organization but said the text amendment would be the subject of a public hearing in front of the Worcester County Commissioners. He highlighted the positive financial impact the casino has had in Worcester County.
“The casino has become such an economic driver, you all know the contribution that it makes to not only Worcester County but to Berlin, Ocean Pines and Ocean City,” he said.