Earlier this month, Rockingham County officials responded to a lawsuit that was filed over a proposed site for a Las Vegas-style casino resort that was approved by county commissioners who seemingly tried hiding the rezoning plan from residents for months, WGHP reported.
The lawsuit over the rezoning of nearly 200 acres of property to build a casino resort was filed by Rockingham County residents on Oct. 18.
In the suit, the plaintiffs accused the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners of ignoring “basic legal requirements” when it approved the rezoning application. The application was submitted by NC Development Holdings, which has links to The Cordish Companies, a gambling development company based in Baltimore, Maryland. Cordish executives have donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republicans, such as Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County resident, and his son, Kevin, who is a Rockingham County commissioner.
According to WRAL, Cordish Companies has had lobbyists in North Carolina for two years, but this year stocked their staff full of “lobbyists with ties to Berger, including one from … a consulting firm run by Berger’s former chief of staff, Jim Blaine, and Berger’s former spokesman, Ray Martin.”
The wheels on the casino plan may have been put in motion as early as March. It was then that a Cordish casino in Maryland hosted a gambling symposium that North Carolina lawmakers and other officials attended.
Just a few months later, in June, Rockingham County commissioners discussed the casino plan, then quietly, and without notifying the public, made changes to county ordinances that would help pave the way for a casino to be built if the current law is changed.
In July, the county planning board rejected the rezoning project in a 5-2 vote and recommended that the commissioners also reject the application from Cordish. Later that month, the public became aware of the changes the commissioners made to the county’s zoning ordinances.
Once residents found out what the commissioners had done – and realized they only had a short window of time to speak out against it – they became outraged.
Around 500 people showed up for an Aug. 1 town hall where everyone who spoke – except for a professional poker player – expressed their opposition to the plan. Despite the planning board’s July vote and all of the pushback from residents, on Aug. 21, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the rezoning plan.
In their response to the lawsuit, county officials said that they believe the rezoning is “error-free” and that a court will agree with them and dismiss the suit.
“The property in issue sits along future Interstate 73, a four-lane divided highway. This area has been earmarked as a future growth area for a couple of decades,” they wrote in the response.
The county went on to say all of the public comments that were submitted or expressed at the public input meeting were considered during the rezoning process.
Regardless of what county officials are saying, for some of those opposed to the casino plan, it’s clear to them that officials and lawmakers knew what to expect long before the public found out about it.
Doug Isley, a former planning board member, said the whole thing “smells of skunk.”
“Everything’s just perfectly timed,” he said. “Which stinks to high heaven.”
The county will issue a legal response to the lawsuit by Dec. 22.