East Franklin Votes to Prohibit Mini-Casinos

Zoning Officer Greg McKelvey (front) and Solicitor Ty Heller discuss with supervisors the controversy surrounding prohibiting mini-casinos in East Franklin Township at last night’s public meeting.

It was a total shift from the public meeting last month! East Franklin originally had planned to not do anything about proposed legislation that would permit the operation of mini-casinos locations throughout western Pennsylvania.

However, township supervisors changed their minds. Last night, by unanimous vote, they decided to prohibit casinos.

While it may sound like “prohibition” is a bad thing, it actually is the preferred method that will enable the municipality to have time to put into effect zoning requirements that will spell out the available areas for such establishments.

“The original zoning ordinances were passed in 1986,” Heller said. “Although they were revised in the early 2000’s, gambling was not legal in Pennsylvania. Therefore there were no designations provided in the ordinance for casinos.”

Heller said that by passing an ordinance that prohibited casinos, the Planning Commission can hold hearings and change zoning laws over the next few months. The prohibition ordinance can then be rescinded since by then casinos will be an permitted use in certain zoned areas.

Resident Tim Bowser was concerned that proper research was done before last night’s vote. Zoning Officer Greg McKelvey said public input is another good reason to pass the prohibition ordinance.

“I think the supervisors want to make sure they are having a thorough conversation on all the aspects of this,” he said.

Supervisor Barry Peters said that without inclusion of casino-language in the zoning ordinance, a license holder could come into the township and put it anywhere. He said he wanted to see the residents protected.

Township Solicitor Ty Heller agreed.

“Your basic zoning ordinance cannot prohibit throughout the entire township any use category. If you don’t have a place, they could come and be anywhere – in a person’s back yard, or anywhere. So the question is: How do you balance the need for development with the need for protecting the people who have homes here? There is language in the Act that is designed to give you some time to deal with it.”

East Franklin Township Supervisors Dan Goldinger and Barry Peters listen as residents and township officials discuss their views of prohibiting a mini-casino in the township at last night’s meeting. (not pictured in photo is Supervisor David Stewart)

The Commonwealth required any municipality that needed time to get their zoning ordinances updated, or purely disagreed with having a casino within their boundaries to file the resolution with the State no later than December 31, 2017. If not filed, then the municipality could never create an ordinance prohibiting a casino in the future. However, if a prohibition was filed, then the municipality had the right to change their mind and allow a casino in the future.

As Solicitor Alyssa Golfieri told Ford City Borough Council earlier this month, the resolution to prohibit a casino puts the control back into the hands of the municipality instead of the casino licensee determining location of the casino within the municipality.

“It’s a one-shot deal,” Heller told supervisors last night. “You can say no (to the casino), then you can say yes (later), but then you can’t go back and say no again.”

Heller said there are specific procedures that must be followed to amend zoning ordinances, and those procedures take time.

“There are hearings that have to be held, there are findings that have to be made, the opportunity for public comment, and then create something that applies to residents of the township. When I talked to the supervisors, their choice is ‘Do we do nothing, and tell them to come wherever they want, we are glad to have ya’ or do we take a slightly more conservative approach and prohibit temporarily then take the steps to have the hearing and come up with a proposal for areas where we think where a casino might make sense in the township.”

Heller felt that the zoning ordinance could be amended at the earliest within the next three months.

McKelvey said members of the Planning Commission as well as the public are having trouble understanding the resolution to prohibit.

“Many of the comments were that they couldn’t get past ‘prohibit.’ They felt like, ‘You do that, and whatever chance you have of it ever happening is probably not going to happen at that point if an interested party was there.’ ”

McKelvey said that of the 2,500 municipalities in the state, only about 200 have adopted the resolution to prohibited ordinance at this point. In Armstrong County, Ford City and Worthington are the only two known municipalities to pass the prohibition resolution.

McKelvey said don’t hold your breath. We probably won’t see a casino.

“My personal opinion is that I do not feel that within this legislation and these ten mini-casinos, that there will be one in Armstrong County. However, gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2009. Now the legislature has expanded it in 2017. So looking at the future, we should have some permitted uses in the township for a gambling house.”

Heller agreed, stating not just anyone can apply for the license beginning in January from the Commonwealth.

“The only people that can get a Category 4 license are existing license holders. So an Armstrong County company can’t say ‘We want to open one of these things’. It must be some one like the Rivers (Casino) saying ‘We want to do a Rivers North’.”

The Reverend Chuck Layne voiced opposition to the expansion of casino gambling.

Pastor Chuck Layne from the Walkchalk Salem Baptist Church voiced his concern about permitting casinos into the township.

“Citizens of the Commonwealth don’t know anything about it or had an opportunity to know anything about it. I am speaking as one who is opposed to the expansion of casino locations regardless of what form it comes in. It’s advertised as revenue and I understand there will be municipalities that don’t want to lose out on potential revenue,” Layne said.

Township Secretary/Treasurer Debra Cornman also voiced her opposition, stating that people are looking at the income received from a casino, but do not realize the cost to the township.

“You’ve got to figure out the traffic situation, the police, and everything else. It’s just not about getting money. You are getting money but there is a lot of headache involved with the money.”

Passage of this resolution was the only action taken by the supervisors at last night’s meeting.