OCEAN PINES – The Worcester County Commissioners expressed concern regarding a potential casino overlay zone at a meeting this week.
On Tuesday, the commissioners held a work session regarding the Ocean Downs Casino’s proposal to create a casino overlay zone, which would allow for more entertainment uses on the property. While not all commissioners weighed in on the proposal, several voiced reservations regarding impacts on traffic as well as other tracts of land in the county.
“I’m very concerned about the overlay district possibly being applied to other A-2 areas of the county eventually,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said.
This summer, the Worcester County Planning Commission gave a favorable recommendation to a text amendment that would create a casino overlay zone for the A-2 district. The commissioners opted to delay a public hearing on the proposal until Oct. 20 so they could host a work session on the issue first. Ed Tudor, the county’s director of development review and permitting, reviewed the zoning history of the casino on Tuesday. He said the majority of the large property was designated A-2 while a seven-acre corner near Route 50 was designated C-2 commercial.
“When slots were first approved in Maryland in 2008 there was lots of discussion on the local level of how we were going to handle slots out at the track,” Tudor said. “At the time the commissioners instructed me to try to come up with a way or think of ways that we could accommodate it at the track without the need for unnecessary public hearings.”
Tudor’s department eventually permitted the slots as an accessory use to the racetrack. The text amendment proposed by the casino would change the casino from an accessory use to one permitted through the casino overlay district.
In his presentation, Tudor added that the casino had been granted a fairgrounds application in the 1990s that allowed it to host a variety of special events, including things like boat shows, motor races, beer festivals and concerts. Tudor said that between the uses allowed through that special exception and the uses regularly permitted in the A-2 zone the casino has the ability to do just about everything the casino overlay zone would. He indicated the overlay zone would just make for a more cohesive development.
“The idea is to have a homogenous, holistic look at the whole project,” he said, adding that a traffic study would be required for the entire concept.
Tudor said the county had also received a letter from the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, a group that represents the owners, drivers and trainers who race at Ocean Downs, regarding the overlay zone. The organization wants to ensure that the overlay zone wouldn’t lead to the elimination of racing at the casino.
“Cloverleaf has no objection to Ocean Downs expanding the casino operations to include other retail operations such as shops, hotels and theaters,” the letter reads. “That could create tax benefits for the county, additional entertainment options for residents and visitors, and benefits for the race track. However, there should be no change to the law unless the previously agreed-upon condition remains in effect; that is, that no gambling could be operated at the Ocean Downs site if live racing is stopped for a period of 12 consecutive months.”
When asked by the commissioners if the overlay district could apply to any A-2 property, Tudor said it would only apply to A-2 properties that had a legally approved casino authorized by the state.
Bunting asked whether various commercial uses were allowed at the casino now. Tudor explained that they would be allowed on the C-2 portion of the property and that the overlay zone would allow such uses on the A-2 section of the property as well.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he recalled the hearings associated with the approval of slots in Maryland.
“I thought the state didn’t allow them to put hotels on that property,” he said.
Tudor acknowledged that there were various state requirements associated with casinos.
Commissioner Chip Bertino said he was worried about the impact an overlay zone could have on Route 589.
“There are chokepoints along 589 when you’re coming south from 113 or going from Route 50 toward Ocean Pines,” he said. “Adding some of these facilities we’re talking about I suspect would increase traffic volume. The traffic surveys have a tendency to do whatever it is, whoever’s paying for them, to reach that result.”
Bunting said he was still worried about the impact a new overlay zone could have on other properties in Worcester County.
“The A-2 zoning was created for a reason, because it was a buffer between the A-1 and different other types of zoning which are heavier,” Bunting said, adding that the A-2 permitted a variety of uses already. “I’m a little concerned about the integrity of the A-2 district.”
Mitrecic said he would hold his comments until the public hearing, which will be during the commissioners’ second meeting in October.
“I’ll just leave this scenario in everybody’s head. They have a concert out there and you have 2,500, 3,000 people leaving that casino area at the same time pouring out onto 589,” he said. “That’s a possibility.”
In an interview after Tuesday’s work session, Ocean Downs Casino General Manager Bobbi Sample said she was confident the commissioners’ concerns could be addressed.
“The overlay doesn’t give us the ability to move forward without oversight,” she said.
As far as the impact on traffic, Sample said in recent years the casino had held many events that attracted large crowds. Last summer’s camel and ostrich races are an example. The casino worked with Maryland State Police and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office to manage traffic. Sample said the casino paid the agencies for their time so there was no cost to the community.
“We understand the issue and do everything we can to mitigate the issue,” she said.
When asked why the casino was proposing an overlay district rather than pursuing development on the seven acres already zoned commercial, Sample said that piece of the property — located near the Route 50 corner — wasn’t close enough to the casino. She said that in adding uses to its site, the casino’s primary goal remained getting visitors into the casino.
“To do something that far away is not conducive,” she said.
She stressed that the casino had been a good partner to the community and would continue to be.
“We feel very positive we can address all the concerns and move forward with the responsible expansion of our property,” she said.