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Public stays silent at South Boston hearings

South Boston Town Council, with Ed Owens absent, voted unanimously Monday to adopt amendments to town code defining illegal gambling, amusement centers and electronic contest devices. Council’s action came after a public hearing during which no one spoke either for or against the amendment to town code, which is meant to add the definition of an Electronic Contest Device and amend the definition of an amusement center.

The current definition of amusement center did not include electronic contest devices such as “Internet Sweepstakes” which are new amusement technology since the zoning ordinance was updated in 1999, according to town staff.

Proponents of several sweepstakes ventures have inquired about opening operations in South Boston since 2008, but the town has maintained its position on sweepstakes operations, Town Manager Ted Daniel said during a planning commission public hearing on the amendments last month.

By expanding the definition of amusement center to include electronic contest devices, the zoning ordinance will recognize their existence and properly define them for land use purposes.

Some sweepstakes are legal in Virginia, and an influx of out-of-state and in-state businesses are seeking business licenses to begin operations in South Boston, Daniel added in a background document issued to planners.

Applicants for these types of businesses must now apply for a Special Use Permit and go through public hearings with both the planning commission and town council before they are permitted in B-2 (General Commercial), B-3 (Central Business), AR (Adaptive Reuse) and M1 (General Industrial) districts.

“We’ll have a way to give [Sweepstakes Cafes] an application and identify what they’re applying for through Special Use Permits,” said Daniel.

The planning commission would hold a public hearing and possibly identify unique issues associated with each individual applicant on a case-by-case basis and ultimately make a recommendation to town council to approve a Special Use Permit with conditions or not approve the Special Use Permit, according to Daniel.

“Tonight we’re putting [Sweepstakes Cafes] in our zoning ordinance, and if you apply for one of these, you have to do it through a Special Use Permit and go through that process.”

In response to a question from Mayor Carroll Thackston, Daniel said the earliest the planning commission would hear comment on a Special Use Permit to operate a Sweepstakes Cafe would be mid-February, since planners do not meet this month.

In answering a question posed by councilman W.R. “Bill” Snead Jr., Daniel noted the burden of proof is on the applicant to convince planners and council their operation does not constitute illegal gambling.

“I can answer your question with my opinion,” said Daniel.  “The proof is upon the applicant, and I would expect them to come to the planning commission and go through the process with some substantial documentation or written evidence, legal evidence that what they’re doing is legal in concurrence with Virginia law.

“I would expect them to convince the planning commission that it’s legal in accordance with Virginia law.

“Then, the planning commission would accept citizens’ comments.  There will be some who would favor it, and those who would oppose it, based on what’s happening in other jurisdictions.”

Questions posed by planners in the process may include those asking the applicant for the location of the business, its operating hours and the conditions the applicant would be willing to accept in order to operate the business.

That’s the purpose of the special use process, added Daniel.

“Whether they’re legal or illegal under Virginia law is just one part of the equation.  How does it fit into our community standards and community needs?

“That’s the reason the planning commission gets the first shot at it.”

The bill under consideration in the Virginia General Assembly introduced by Del. Glenn Oder (R) of Newport News would amend the definition of illegal gambling.

If passed, council may have to reconsider the issue, Daniel reminded them Monday.

“What’s before us tonight is in line with current Virginia code,” he said.  “If the General Assembly gets in there and starts kicking stuff around and changing it with a law that becomes effective next July, we may find ourselves in here tweaking these very ordinances we’re talking about.”