Danville zoning inspectors have warned the owners of 30 different convenience stores their slot-like games may be running afoul of city law. Now some store owners are seeking special use permits to get their old machines running and to acquire new ones.
Eleven businesses have applied for the special use permits, with more applying later this month. The city is charging each business a $360 application fee to cover the cost of legal advertising. On Monday, the Danville Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the requests for special use permits. From there, it would be up to city council to grant permission.
At Charlie’s Stop and Shop on Franklin Turnpike, these unplugged machines look like blacked-out, arcade cabinets offering nothing more than blank screens. No marks or logos identify a purpose or company of origin on many of them. For the most part, the only indications they are games are the slots for dollar bills, buttons proclaiming “play” and another with “take ticket” and an arrow pointing to the slot below.
A few machines include a name and company as well a warning that players must be “18 years of age or older” to play.
Store owner Kirpal Singh said he didn’t realize he might have violated the city’s zoning law by operating the machines.
“We do everything within the law,” Singh said.
Inspectors shut down dozens of machines in recent weeks following an anonymous complaint that shop owners had some type of indoor gaming not allowed at those locations by city zoning ordinance, which could be a misdemeanor.
“I’ve not made a determination on legality of games. That is up to the commonwealth attorney’s office,” explained Kenneth C. Gillie Jr., director of zoning and planning. “The machines are commercial, indoor and recreation, thus require a special use permit.”
For now, there are no fines or criminal penalties to be levied, city documents state.
“If you continue to illegally operate, the City has the right to void your business license and charge your business with a criminal misdemeanor,” states a notice sent to one store owner.
Still, some business owners are upset they had to unplug the machines.
“I didn’t even operate for a day,” said Abdul Khan, owner of Shadowood Mart on Franklin Turnpike. “I don’t even know how much business I lost.”
Khan said that he, like many other store owners, had no idea he could have been violating any laws laws.
“I didn’t know I needed a special license,” he said during a phone call.
Some stores have been accused of running a gambling operation based on the type of games they have, city documents show.
“To comply with Zoning Code, you must immediately stop any gaming and gambling operations,” one notice states. “This includes removing any gaming devices. You may choose to apply for a Special Use Permit to provide commercial recreation as part of your business. However, operation may not continue until approval is obtained.”
Though Las Vegas-type slot machines are not allowed in the state, similar electronic machines that can be won based on an action by the player to determine the game’s outcome are allowed. These machines are called “skill” games.
“Game of chance is gambling. Game of skill is legal,” Singh said.
Special use permits filed with the city show that store owners are seeking to operate “skill” games as well as historical horse racing machines, electronic slot-like games where players bet on past horse races. In Virginia, historical horse racing is legal only in communities that have approved pari-mutuel betting by public referendum — the issue will be on the Danville ballot in November.
Even if the issue passes in the Danville referendum, none of the businesses asking for historical horse racing machines in their special use permit applications are likely to ever have them. That’s because the games are regulated by the Virginia Racing Commission, which so far has granted the license to operate them — called a significant infrastructure limited license — only to Colonial Downs Group.
Colonial Downs Group, which runs Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent County, is the company that pushed for the referendum on pari-mutuel betting in the city and has plans for an off-track betting parlor with as many as 150 historical horse machines.
Of store owners interested in historical horse racing, the gaming commission’s David Lermond said: “They can request all they want, but legally they can’t have those machines.”
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.