After hours of discussion from city staff, attorneys, business owners and residents, the Danville Planning Commission on Monday tabled 11 applications for special use permits from store owners hoping to operate skilled gaming machines.
Citing insufficient information, a unanimous commission voted 6-0 on each application to postpone the matter indefinitely. Commissioner Steve Petrick was absent.
“I don’t think we really have enough information right now to make a proper decision,” Commissioner Harold Garrison said.
In recent weeks, zoning inspectors shut down dozens of machines — mostly at convenience stores — after an anonymous complaint pointed out many of the indoor games were not allowed by city zoning ordinances, which could be a misdemeanor.
As it currently stands, “skill” games — or electronic machines similar to slot machines except that players can impact the outcome of the game — are legal in Virginia. Games of chance, like a Las Vegas slot machine, currently are not allowed in the state.
Still, operating the machines, which look like video slot machines and pay out money to winners, requires a special use permit in Danville because they are commercial, indoor and recreational. The legality of the machines and distinctions between games of chance and skill is something for the commonwealth attorney’s office to determine.
The commission Monday was tasked specifically with the zoning aspects of these gaming machines and was told not to consider whether the games are legal. Despite that, many of the questions and concerns from the commissioners and responses from attorneys and residents focused on legality and the different types of games in question.
“We are looking at issues of size, space parking for any game,” said Michael Scearce, commission chairman, who repeatedly had to redirect the conversation to these issues.
Brent Jackson, an attorney who represents two of the applicants that use machines from Grace Technologies, said the games involve deductive reasoning to improve both the chances of winning and the potential amount to be won.
“You are now controlling your chances, and that is not gambling,” he said. “Gambling is strictly chance.”
City zoning staff suggested a handful of conditions for the special use permits, among them the hours of operation and the number of machines allowed in each store.
Store owner Kirpal Singh, who has eight machines in his store, voiced displeasure with some of the proposed requirements. He questioned why there should be limits on the hours of operation — 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday — when there are no such limits on the state lottery.
He also questioned the proposal to limit stores to no more than one machine for every three people allowed by the maximum occupancy.
“Why is there a limit on the number of machines we are allowed to have?” he asked.
The proposed special use permit also includes a parking requirement: businesses must provide at least one spot for every three people allowed by the maximum occupancy, as well as one space per machine and one per employee on the major shift.
On the issue of parking, Singh said the government shouldn’t step in to make that decision for him.
“That would be loss of business,” he argued. “That would be my loss.”
Gillie and Scearce both expressed concern about incoming customers arriving to find no parking and overflowing into neighboring parking lots.
“We’ve had issues where the number of people using these [gaming machines] exceeded the number of parking spaces on site,” said Kenneth Gillie Jr., Danville director of planning.
Attorney Fielding Douthat, representing several of the businesses, showed pictures of Richmond-area convenience stores with the games inside to illustrate parking won’t be an issue.
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges, but this works in favor of these Danville stores,” he said, since the Richmond area is much more heavily populated.
Staff also suggested no one younger than 18 should be permitted to play, which no one disputed.
The problem with implementing some of the zoning staff’s suggestions, however, is that not enough information about the stores is available. Five applicants did not have a certificate of occupancy, or a designated maximum occupancy, Gillie pointed out. Several also didn’t have marked parking spots at their business, making it difficult to determine an exact parking requirement.
Chris Petersen, representing the Virginia Charitable Gaming Council, said the lack of regulation and oversight on these skill games are eating into the receipts of both the Virginia Lottery and the Charitable Gaming Association.
“The games we’re talking about here are not reviewed by anyone, are not approved by anyone,” he said.
Jackson called the validity of the violation notices the businesses received into question, saying they were “inappropriate” and “not specific.”
“We need to have a basic understanding of what the problem is,” he said.
In response, Gillie cited the city code for special use permits and said the notices were specific because they stated the need for the business to obtain a special use permit.
“I haven’t done anything that is out of the ordinary... I’m following procedure,” he said.
Wendy Lewis, a resident who retired to the city in 2015 and plays the games often, said they are a real hit among the retired community.
“It’s just one thing that adds to the fun for people retiring in Danville,” she said.
Commissioner Bruce Wilson expressed concern about the variation between the machines that would have been approved by the special use permits.
“As we go through this, do we really know what we are actually approving?” he asked.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.