14 poker outlets ask Zoning for an extension

Fourteen poker establishments are asking the Zoning Board to extend the time alloted for the relocation of their poker arcades to the designated zones for adult gambling machines.

At a recent meeting, the Zoning Board headed by chairman Diego Blanco decided not to take action on the request for extensions to relocate the 14 poker outlets.

Blanco said they will take into consideration all the input from the poker operators, their legal counsels, and the community on the issue.

The board will convene on Feb. 21 to decide on the operators’ request, he said.

At the meeting, poker operators expressed their willingness to comply with the law; however, they have concerns with respect to the difficulty of finding a place in the designated areas.

The zoning administrator Therese Ogumoro said that in order to qualify for an extension, the application must be submitted before a certain deadline, must show the gaming machine business is locally established, that it’s not a public nuisance and will be unable to recoup the value of its investment during the timeline established by law.

The poker arcades had until Oct. 25, 2017 to comply with Saipan Local Law 18-5, which requires poker operators to relocate their establishments to the designated zones for adult gambling machine businesses, she pointed out.

Blanco said that poker operators should have submitted their requests for an extension before the Oct. 27, 2017 deadline. Prior to that, the operators had four years to prepare when the Public Law 18-05 or the Saipan Adult Machine Business Zoning Law of 2013 was in effect.

Mark Scoggins, legal counsel of MGM Poker, said most applicants have been trying to find relocation sites for their poker arcades.

“Most applicants were not sitting on their hands during this period of time doing nothing and hoping this problem would go away,” he said.

The locations within the designated zone are considered “premium,” he said, adding that they could not have two poker rooms next to each other.

Scoggines noted that in the past two years there has been an incredible real estate boom, not seen since since the 80s and 90s.

Off-island investors bought property and built hotels, and poker operators are scrambling to find alternative space for their rooms, he said.

He said poker operators should be given time to recoup their investment, adding their license fees contributed to the economy of the CNMI, and are used for scholarship programs.

During the hearing at the multi-purpose center, Rep. Joseph “Leepan” Guerrero expressed his concern about the owners whose buildings would be vacated by poker outlets.

“Did the zoning [board] take into consideration the owner who might have a loan from the bank or CDA? Did they give the owner the chance to say their piece about what business is suitable for their building and what is not?” he asked.

Once the casino industry is in full operation, he said the poker industry will eventually shut down.

Guerrero asked the board to consider the request to allow the poker operators to recoup their investments.

Speaking as a legislator and a community member, Rep. John Paul Sablan, the chairman of Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation, said he supports the requests for an extension.

“These businesses have been here for more than 25 years and they’ve invested on our island,” he said.

The revenue from poker licenses funded the SHEFA program and even the zoning office, he said.

He said the Zoning Board should be mindful of the fiscal impact because when the casino law was passed, it also capped the poker machines.

“So take a look at the fiscal impact because we’re going to lose millions of dollars,” Sablan said.

He said his office is willing to work with Zoning to find a short-term solution of the poker-relocation issue.

Marissa Flores-Ada, a community member, said her father the late Edward W. Flores was one of the first local gaming machine owners and operators.

She said many would describe their family-owned business as “fast money” and that the money was taken from poor people.

“I continue to correct those who say such things and share this sentiment,” she said.

Although her father passed away “I am here today as a catalyst and voice for my father who when still in business always rejected the idea of having gaming establishments in non-gaming [nonconforming] districts.”

   Joseph Horey, lawyer of Pacific Amusement Inc., which operates High Roller 3 in Koblerville, showed the zoning board various maps to illustrate how the poker operations have been impacted by various laws.

He said under the original Zoning Law in 2013, the adult machines were permitted from the Middle Road to Commonwealth Drive.

In Oct. 2013 under SLL 18-05, it was extended as far as Beach Road, Gualo Rai Road, and also included a large part of Garapan.

In April 2015 under SLL 19-04, the zone remained but it changed the distance from churches and schools from 330 feet to 200 feet, he said.

In Aug. 2017, the proposed SLB 20-39 of Rep. Janet Maratita would have extended the authorized poker zones all the way up between Beach Road Middle Road to the entire area of Garapan.

In Sept 2017, in SLL 20-12, the legislature amended this very slightly by adding Orchid Street.

“This is a mixed commercial area in the middle of Garapan where, poker was not to be authorized, I don’t know why it was done, it came as a surprise to lot of people,” he said.

James Gebhard, Pacific Amusement Inc. general manager, said their poker arcade High Roller I in Garapan is not located deep in a village, but in a commercial area on a main road.

The SLL 18-05 targeted poker establishments in village areas for closure, he said, but they support the intent of SLL 18-05 as it is inappropriate to allow poker establishment in residential areas.

However, he said their game room is located on the main road and not near village residents, schools or churches.

The High Roller 1 in Garapan is in a zoning classification of mixed commercial, however, due to the northern boundary of allowable adult gambling just a couple short blocks south, their business was deemed non-conforming and must close when their business license expires.

“The odd part is adult gambling will be allowed just a few feet away in the next building, the Century Hotel. I question why our business location is inappropriate, but the same type of business is allowable just a few feet away,” Gebhard said.

Gebhard noted they’ve been in business on Saipan since 1993 and continued to support various government agencies such as the Man‘amko, the annual March Against Cancer and other non-profit organizations and community events with tens of thousands dollars in donations.

Lawyer Robert Torres who represented Winnerlife Inc. and Dan B. Choi, which operates SH II Poker, argued that the Saipan Adult Machine Business Zoning Law of 2013 said all non-conforming adult business machine would be relocated at the end of the last full renewal period of its license from the finance department within four years of the effective date of the law.

He noted, however, the Division of Revenue and Taxation is still issuing and renewing business licenses for gaming machines to poker arcade operators and owners currently operating outside the areas permitted by the Saipan Adult Machine Business Zoning Law of 2013.

“Is it not clear then you have to figure out the ambiguity? You can’t just construe it in a way that business owners are deprived of their investments,” he told the Board.

Torres said if before the Oct 24, 2017 deadline, a poker license expires, for example on Sept 24, 2017, four years from that expiration is when poker operator would start to relocate because they have their last renewal period prior to the deadline.

Torres said cutting the operators’ right to operate duly licensed businesses prior to the termination of these licenses amounts to an interference with duly protected property interests.

Saipan Local Law 18-5 requires poker arcades in residential villages to relocate to an adult business park, tourist resort, mixed commercial, Garapan core, Garapan east or Beach Road zoning district.

Source: Marianas Variety :

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