Asheville City Council: Name of the game

  • Asheville City Council May 25 meeting
  • City backs off on festival fees
  • Normac plant exempted from annexation

Electronic gaming has a contentious history, both in Buncombe County and statewide.

And though video-poker machines are prohibited, a new type of "sweepstakes" machine has taken advantage of a loophole in the law (included, in part, to accommodate the state lottery) to get around the ban. Local law enforcement has investigated gaming operators in the past, but two court rulings have held that the machines are legal.

"Not a nuisance:" Asheville resident William Withers, a landlord with businesses that use electronic gaming machines, defends them at the May 25 Council meeting. Photos by Halima Flynt


With the matter currently tied up in court, machines have been able to go in under normal commercial and business zoning in Asheville, something that's troubled city staff.

The issue is particularly sensitive here given that former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford and several of his closest deputies are in federal prison for taking payoffs from video-poker operators making illegal cash payouts.

These matters came to a head at the Asheville City Council's May 25 meeting, as proposed zoning-and-permitting rules came up for a vote.

The new rules would treat businesses housing the machines similar to adult businesses, restricting how close they can be to churches, schools, etc. The rules also limit the hours of operation, cap the number of machines any single location could have at 20, and distinguish between places where they're a secondary revenue stream (such as in a laundromat or gas station) and those where they're the primary business. The rules also establish a permit fee of $2,500 per machine and $1,000 per business.

Haw Creek resident Fred English urged Council to adopt the rules. "I saw one guy put $500 into one of these machines," he said. "Get everything you can get out of these people. They've outsmarted the politicians in Raleigh and everywhere else. I'd take every penny you can get."

But local landlord William Withers, who said some of his tenants use the machines on his property, maintained that the city was unfairly singling out a legitimate business. Electronic gaming, he charged, "is being bullied by the city and city staff. This affects a lot of lives. I think the city is addressing this as a nuisance."

Police, he said, "are concerned that there might be some kind of questionable activity going on. Not in my facilities: You're welcome to visit them anytime you want. What you will find is the equivalent of Aunt Edna sitting in front of the machine, enjoying a cigarette, spending some money. I don't play the machines, but people have the right to do what they want to do."

City planner Shannon Tuch, noting that "this isn't your typical land-use decision," said that due to the money these machines bring in, they're a target for "robbery and other crimes of opportunity" and, absent a state prohibition, "What else are we going to do?" besides find a way to regulate the activity.

Council member Cecil Bothwell, who covered the Medford case extensively as an Xpress reporter, noted that in general, he doesn't like gambling. "The dependence on luck for success in America is really poisoning our public policy, our citizenship. It's a really toxic idea." At the same time, he noted, banning the practice outright often encourages corruption, "so I'm uncomfortable with the whole thing."

The poison: Council member Cecil Bothwell said gambling is "toxic" but worries that banning it outright leads to corruption.


Mayor Terry Bellamy said the proposed rules represented an attempt to "decide about the impact on the community, not so much the morality issue" and that Council hadn't had enough chance to hear from business owners such as Withers who would be affected by them.

"I think we've fallen into the situation where the state's not taken a position, so we have to deal with it," Council member Jan Davis observed, adding that he hadn't seen a lot of problems in gas stations he'd visited that had the machines.

In the original meeting agenda, all the rules were consolidated into two votes — one on the zoning rules and another concerning licenses and fees. Instead, however, Council opted to break out each individual item as a separate vote, approving some and postponing consideration of others.

Council members narrowly adopted the privilege-license fee on a 4-3 vote with Bellamy, Davis and Council member Bill Russell voting no. The zoning rules and the cap on machines found more support: Both were approved 6-1, with Russell registering the lone opposition. A motion to postpone considering restrictions on how close the businesses can be to churches, schools, etc. was approved 5-2, with Bellamy and Russell opposed. Council unanimously decided to revisit the question of operating hours in six months.

Fee, fie, foe

Council also addressed three matters that have been brewing for some time, including extending the city limits.

A public hearing on the proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 played out more with a whimper than a bang. Although Asheville's 2010-11 budget has been hotly debated both within and outside the Council chamber, only two people spoke at the hearing. Fred English criticized Council members for spending money on Clingman Avenue traffic calming and greenways, imploring them to "get your priorities straight."

And Mac Swicegood of the Council of Independent Business Owners criticized the city's management of the storm-water fee revenues. The money, he said, was supposed to pay for fixing a dilapidated system, not provide new jobs, and the system is "overly bureaucratic. Put the hard hats on and get the repairs done," he urged.

And noting that Asheville "is blessed with an abundance of water," he continued, "Now's the time to change course and start selling" to other cities.
 
In response, Bellamy pointed out that the Clingman Avenue effort was a project of the state Department of Transportation and that Asheville already sells water to Hendersonville.

Wavering on waivers

One controversial facet of the budget was its reduction of fee waivers for festivals. Last month, representatives from a bevy of Asheville events implored Council not to impose additional costs on them during a recession.

Apparently they found a willing ear, as Council members now unanimously supported more lenient rules.
Under the amended budget, all fees would be waived for six "core" events — Goombay, the Greek Festival, the drum circle, Downtown After 5, Shindig on the Green and the Holiday Parade. Other events staged by local nonprofits would get a special, half-off rate. An additional 27 events that had already applied for fee waivers would get a one-time exemption while they adjust to the new rules.

Bellamy said she hoped this policy would remain in place for some time, as changing it repeatedly "creates antagonism" in the community.

The measure found broad support on Council, though there was some debate over how the fee waivers would affect the costs for police and barricades (they wouldn't: Permit fees go through Parks & Rec; payments for those other services are made separately to other city departments).

A final vote on the 2010-11 budget is slated for June 22.

This expanding city

Council members also approved a series of 12 annexations, ranging from new developments around town to half a house in Haw Creek. The biggest of the 12 involved commercial property on Airport Road. In an unusual move, however, the city excluded the Normac plant, which manufactures grinding machines. In exchange, Normac has agreed to release the city from its obligation to run a sewer line to an adjacent portion of the property that is being annexed, saving the city $168,000.

A public hearing on the annexations had already been held, and Council members offered little comment. Eleven of the annexations were approved on identical 6-1 votes, with Russell (who says he opposes involuntary annexation in general) the odd man out. On the Airport Road property, Bellamy joined Russell in rejecting the expansion, expressing concern about the cost of providing additional services to the area.

David Forbes can be reached at dforbes@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.

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