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Wood County Commission approves video lottery variance

PARKERSBURG — In granting another variance for a video lottery establishment, the Wood County Commission agreed to look at the ordinance to see if it needs amended or eliminated.

In a 2-1 vote Thursday, the commission granted a variance for the owners of West Virginia Cafe who are looking to open two video lottery establishments at a site near the exit ramp of I-77 near Williamstown (described as Map 151, Parcels 2 and 8).

Commissioners Bob Tebay and Jimmy Colombo voted in favor while Commissioner Blair Couch voted against.

During the course of the hearing people questioned the validity of the ordinance as the commission has kept granting variances with only one in recent memory that was granted and later rescinded when new evidence was presented.

Attorney Bill Merriman, representing A1 Amusements, said they are opposed to the granting of the variance to the ordinance. He said the ordinance, adopted in 2004, spells out where such places can be established, including 1,000 feet from homes, churches, school property, playgrounds and more.

“The county has a substantial interest in protecting the public health, safety and welfare of your citizens,” Merriman said. “These establishments, by their very nature, have objectionable operational characteristics, especially when they are located near each other thereby contributing to blight and degradation to the quality of life to the adjacent areas.

“The county found that the regulation of the locations of these establishments is necessary to prevent undesirable secondary effects on surrounding areas, including … a tendency to attract an undesirable number of transients, to deflate real property values and to blight commercial and residential areas and to impede the development of businesses and residences.”

The county’s ordinance was done to line up with similar ordinances in other towns. Merriman brought up the City of Williamstown recently denied a request to set up video lottery machines at DaVinci’s.

Merriman said the applications by West Virginia Cafe fail to meet the guidelines of the ordinance.

Wood County Compliance Officer Sarah Robinson said her office was contacted by two residential property owners within the 1,000 foot limit who are opposed to the variance.

Couch asked if the county should do away with the ordinance and let the state rules take effect which are less restrictive, changing the distance where places can be established to 300 feet from structures prohibited under the guidelines. The state gave counties the ability to adopt stricter rules.

Couch said the county’s ordinance has been in place for 17 years and they have not seen a drop in property values around the gaming establishments.

A1 operates around five video lottery establishments in the Williamstown area.

Merriman said A1 has never asked for a variance as they have established their businesses within the guidelines set forth in the ordinance.

“We are asking you to follow your law,” Merriman said.

Chris Ullman, who does real estate work for A1, said he has always tried to follow the rules set up in the ordinance. He passed on certain properties because he didn’t think they would pass the requirements of the ordinance.

“I didn’t even look at it, because I am trying to abide by your rules,” he said. “I have abided by the rules and have not challenged them one time. Maybe I should have.”

He said there were properties he would have sought if he knew he could come before the commission and got approval for a variance.

A1 has around 30 locations “from here to Huntington,” Ullman said.

West Virginia Cafe bought a piece of property, made improvements to it and is now asking for a variance.

“I didn’t try to slide something in,” Ullman said of the properties he got for A1. “That is what is not fair. Their real estate does not meet the criteria (of the ordinance).”

Attorney Ginny Conley, representing West Virginia Cafe and owner Jeremy Webb, commended A1 for the businesses they run. She and other officials believe she was serving as county prosecutor when the original ordinance was adopted.

“(Webb) runs good businesses,” she said adding Webb has rules within his businesses where only two beers can be served within five hours and no liquor is served.

Colombo wondered if the ordinance was blocking free enterprise. Conley said there are people blocking free enterprise with such rules and regulations.

“This will be a nice establishment, run well and not gaudy,” Conley said.

Money from video lottery has gone towards education, helped veterans, seniors and others, she said.

Couch said that money lost by people at these establishments is not going to any other businesses in the community. Conley said the people who frequent these places are making the choice to spend their money there.

Tebay, who was on the commission when the ordinance was adopted, said there may be flaws in the ordnance but the intent was to protect the citizens of the county. However, this is a state-approved business that has a right to operate. He would be in favor of reexamining the ordinance.

Colombo agreed.

“If it is out of line, we need to correct it,” he said.

Couch voted against the variance as is his tradition. He doesn’t want to see video lottery expand in the county. He said it doesn’t seem the ordinance does much which led to questions if it needs adjusted or removed.

“The issues when they put the ordinance in place in 2004 may be different now,” he said. “At the time there were concerns these businesses would attract an unsavory clientele. Over time, we realize that is not really the case. They drive in and drive out and don’t spend a lot of time in the community.”

The commission is planning to look at the ordinance on Monday to see if anything needs to be done.

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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