Not ‘swept’ away

Published 10:36 am Monday, September 25, 2017

AHOSKIE – Sweepstakes or not sweepstakes.

The issue has been a thorny one for the Ahoskie Town Council since Town Code Enforcement Officer Paul Vaughan expressed to the Ahoskie Planning Board back in February a need to get clarification on the definition of Internet Sweepstakes and Game Cafes.

Ordinances and their enforcement have become even murkier now that a Wilmington Superior Court judge has issued an injunction allowing sweepstakes businesses to operate once again in the state. Two other injunctions have followed.

Superior Court Judge Ebern Watson issued the injunction on behalf of Sandhill Amusements Inc. and Gift Surplus LLC, who were challenging a law the General Assembly passed several years ago that banned the sweepstakes businesses.

The injunction prohibits any law enforcement agency in the state from enforcing that law.

“Anytime a superior court judge gets involved or gives the order, it’s to be carried out statewide,” said a Kinston-area law enforcement official.

Ben Rodgers, Planning Technician with the Mid East Commission, addresses the Ahoskie Town Council who were seeking clarification on the definition of a gaming business and a possible town ordinance regarding Internet Sweepstakes cafes. | Staff Photo by Gene Motley

When lawmakers were debating the issue, safety was among one of the concerns with sweepstakes businesses, many of which operated late into the night.  Locally, there has been vandalism at one such business on US-13 sorth of Ahoskie.

Lawmakers are also frustrated with the injunction. In a statement, said:

“I fully support the process that led to the passage of this law,” said Pitt County Rep. Greg Murphy. “At present the issue is tied up in the courts, which frustrates law enforcement as to what actions, if any, to take regarding the legality of internet sweepstakes. I would hope that the judiciary would expedite their decision making process so as to provide clarity for everyone on the enforcement of this statute.”

Ben Rodgers, a Planning Technician with the Mid East Commission, first appeared before the Ahoskie Town Council in November to provide information on the current state statues. Rodgers informed Council then that the state is still undecided; and they are still going back with litigation. The Mid-East Commission had two recommendations: (1) Completely remove all language from Zoning Ordinance regarding Internet Sweepstakes or have the others grandfathered in and do not allow any other to come in; and (2) Add “skill based” to the definition of “Internet Sweepstakes and Game Cafes”.

Ahoskie Town Attorney Buddy Jones suggested at that time a public hearing to do a text amendment; and that, at the present time do not operate on future requests for licenses to operate such businesses. That public hearing was held in April.

“Sweepstakes are still illegal in the state,” Rodgers declared at the recent Sept. 12 meeting. “Litigation is still ongoing, but the injunctions do not mean they are legal, just that ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement) has been directed do not enforce the ordinances, and do not shut these businesses down that are using this particular software.”

Rodgers stuck by his original recommendation to remove Sweepstakes and Game Cafes from the town’s zoning ordinance.

“The option we discussed was to leave it as is and to add the line in the definition dealing specifically with “game of chance” versus “game of skill”,” he said. “The state has not determined which are legal, and they all are illegal as of right now. I see those as the main two options: remove the current language and any new potential sweepstakes business would not be permitted per the zoning ordinance.  The three or so operations that do exist would still be permitted to do so until they shut down on their own.  They would basically be a non-conformity at that point.”

Rodgers said he had received the information from Rusty King, the local ALE agent who deals with state statutes on the subject. He said King has dealt with the issue in other communities that the Mid East Commission serves.

“I recommend it be removed from the shopping center zoning district, which is the only one it’s allowed in as a conditional use; and then the supplemental definition dealing with hours of operation and distance from existing businesses and those things,” he said.

“You can take that action since the public hearing has already been held. If you got a call tomorrow you could say they are not allowed and that you are waiting on a determination from the state.”

Rodgers reiterated that current businesses would be allowed to continue operation since they were permitted before the ordinance.  He admitted he had not reviewed verification of the cafes in Ahoskie, having just received the information.

“Sandhill Amusements, Gifts Surplus, and Crazy Overstock are the three companies’ software (covered by the injunction),” he noted. “I would need verification (of software) by the Ahoskie owners on whether they are using those.”

He did say ALE would work with local sheriff’s departments on enforcement once legality has been determined.  It’s not left to the towns and their statutes to do that, he said.

“But that’s only if the courts have determined they should be shut down,” he emphasized. “It’s a task I wouldn’t want code enforcement officers to have to do.”

Vaughan was asked his recommendation as he voiced taking the definition out of the ordinance.

“I still get inquiries about people still wanting to open in town,” Vaughan said.

Ahoskie Police Chief Troy Fitzhugh informed Council that one sweepstakes business had already been vandalized twice.

Jones said the reasoning behind the change was sound and recommended it is what the town should do.

“The three sections are: the definition of a sweepstakes, the section saying it’s allowed in a certain shopping center district, and a supplemental list of the software vendors,” Rodgers reiterated.

Councilman Charles Freeman made a motion to remove the language defining sweepstakes and gaming cafes from the language of the town ordinance.  It was seconded by Councilwoman Linda Blackburn and approved unanimously.

After the Council vote had been taken, businesswoman Selena Beverly stepped forward and declared she had been applying for a sweepstakes license in Ahoskie since last November; and she asked Council how another business had received a license after her application was submitted while she was still waiting.  Beverly was told to take up the matter with Code Enforcement.