WP Council Postpones Gaming Decision
By John Lentz
Despite plenty of input from individuals on both sides of the issue, the Whispering Pines Village Council has postponed approval of a permit to allow electronic gaming.
Council members heard from representatives of SAS Food Mart Inc. who had requested a permit allowing the company to establish an electronic gaming business in a building adjacent to the Blue Top Grocery at the intersection of N.C. 22 and Ray's Bridge Road.
"The main things to remember are that opinions cannot be heard in this process," Village Attorney T.C. Morphis, Jr. told council members, explaining the rules under which they had to consider the permit. "When you make your decisions or state something in connection with the issue being heard, it must be based on information in the record. Council members need to recuse themselves if they have a predetermined opinion that is not likely to be subject to change."
The first witness, an SAS representative who identified himself only as "Shawan," was sworn in first. Village officials did not ask for his full name or address.
"We want to bring a new business to the area, one that will bring new employment," he said. "I want to bring help both to my business and to area residents, since this building has stood empty for a long time."
Council members asked him for clarification on how the electronic gaming process worked.
"We own the hardware while we rent the software," he said. "The customer puts money in the machine and plays. The amount of money we make depends on whether or not he or she wins or loses."
Some village residents attending Wednesday night's hearing accused the company of attempting to bring a gambling establishment to the village.
"What the heck is going on here?" asked village resident Larry Griewe from his seat in the audience. "Are you betting on horses in there?"
"You can't go in there and bet on horses, Larry," said Whispering Pines Mayor Bob Zschoche, with frustration in his voice.
Morphis explained that this type of gaming has been declared legal, at least for the present, by the North Carolina courts.
"Electronic gaming is different from Vegas-style gambling in significant ways," he said. "Winning and losing is predetermined, kind of like playing Monopoly at McDonald's. The General Assembly tried to outlaw this twice, but the courts upheld it. It looks like gambling, but the courts say it's not."
Council members asked the SAS representative a number of questions that pertained to parking, to preventing persons under 18 from entering the premises, to the building's septic system.
Several clergy members spoke against the business coming to the village.
"I have lived here for 19 years, and when I moved here I was told that people never locked their doors," said Tally Bandy, who added that she was ordained in the Episcopal Church. "I wish you well," she told Shawan, "but I am afraid your business might change the environment. I fear what it might do to the community and I hope the council votes this down."
But Sue Blanchard, who works in the restaurant at the Blue Top Grocery, said the element Bandy referred to is "already here."
"Every community has people living in it who are addicted to gambling, who are alcoholics, and other things," she said. "That's not the only people who come to these types of establishments. The clientele includes business people who get off work at 5 p.m. and want to come by as well."
Mayor Pro Tem Randy Saunders said he would be unable to vote on the permit without official acknowledgement of some of the questions asked by the council.
"I don't see how we can approve this without hearing back from the county, for example, on whether or not the septic system is adequate," Saunders said. "There are still many questions we have that need answers."
Zschoche agreed, and recessed the hearing until the next Village Council meeting.
In other business, the council voted 3-2 for a Recreation and Open Space Master Plan for the village. The plan would utilize space to create parks, greenways, playgrounds, bicycle riding and walking trails, and more.
Zschoche and council member Jerry Osbourne opposed the motion.
"We are considering a plan to install walking and biking trails that would cost $100,000 to $1 million per mile," Osborne said. "We can't afford this. It's a low priority item, and if you want to walk trails there are two nearby. Just go over to Reservoir Park. We have more pressing issues than this."
But Saunders disagreed.
"Applying that logic, we should let Southern Pines use our lakes since we're using their trails," he said.
At the beginning of the meeting, Zschoche called for a moment of silence in honor of the late Bill Bateman, who served for many years as treasurer of the village through December 2007. Bateman died July 5.
Contact John Lentz at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.
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