By Callie Hietala
The Henry County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied special permit requests for a number of skill game arcades in the area, including one that operated illegally for several months.
Teresa King submitted requests for two permits to allow for the establishment of two such arcades inside existing buildings. One permit was for property located at 1918-1920 Virginia Avenue in the Holiday Shopping Center in the Collinsville District; the second was for 6313 Virginia Avenue, Bassett, in the Reed Creek District.
Attorney R.J. Lackey, of Danville, represented King at the hearing and said his client has been in the skill game business for a number of years in North Carolina.
Regarding the Collinsville site, Lackey said given the types of business already in the strip mall—an adult store, pawn shops, and others—“it’s an area that a skill gaming area is not going to impact negatively in any way. It fits into that type of locale.”
Planning and Zoning Secretary/Administrative Assistant Cindy Adams spoke in opposition to the Collinsville permit.
While gambling already exists in the area through the Virginia Lottery and Rosie’s, both organizations give back to the community and tax players on their winnings, which was not the case with skill game facilities, she said.
“The problem is, if these things are on the up and up, why do they covertly sneak into our facilities and open up and they run and then we have to get them reported to us here at the county? We get complaints about it—the traffic, the fights, the shootings, and things like that.”
“All (the applicants) here have never had a county license (to operate one of these facilities,)” she said, “because they know they’re illegal here.”
Lackey argued that Adams’ critiques applied to other business owners who failed to follow proper procedure, and that he and King were there to do things correctly.
Lee Clark, director of planning, zoning, and inspections, said “your client did open without a business license, your client did open covertly without following the law. That isn’t everybody else. That is your client.”
Clark read into the record a letter from Amy Charles, the store manager of Cosmoprof, which is directly adjacent to the property in Collinsville owned by King.
“When they were open from the end of December to beginning of February, I had customer complaints daily about it,” Charles wrote.
She said her shop’s parking spaces were constantly occupied by those going to the facility and “they also allow smoking inside, which made our store smell horribly.”
Additionally, “there was several times we had people screaming at each other outside of the gaming business on the sidewalk, which caused safety and security concerns for my employees,” she wrote.
Under current Virginia law, Clark said skill games are defined as illegal gaming devices and any machines that operated must have an exemption to an “otherwise complete ban.”
The first such exemption, he said, was granted in 2020 during a special session of the General Assembly dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. From that, certain skill games were allowed to operate from July 1, 2020 until June 30, 2021. Each machine was required to be registered and regulated by the Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC), and had a tax assessed of $1,200 per month per machine, which contributed revenues to a COVID-19 relief fund.
“Every machine outside of this registration became an illegal gambling machine,” Clark explained, and when state legislators did not act to extend that exemption beyond June 30 2021, “all machines operating under that license became illegal gambling devices once again” as of July 1, 2021.
Now, Clark said there is a temporary second exemption following a lawsuit filed in Greensville County Circuit Court which, on Dec. 6, entered a temporary injunction against the enforcement of that skill game ban, currently set to expire May 18. According to Clark, that injunction is limited to those games already taxed and regulated by ABC prior to July 1, 2021.
Clark said that he was “personally involved in a number of free-standing facilities here in Henry County that were investigated and found to be operating illegally. Our local Commonwealth’s Attorney opined that they were, in fact, illegal.” Clark said all were served notice and “all chose to leave this community.”
Those at Thursday’s hearing requesting special use permits were “extremely similar to those that were deemed illegal by our local Commonwealth’s Attorney,” Clark said.
After the BZA voted 4-0 (board member Sandra Hairston was absent) to deny King’s first request, and the public hearing for the second Bassett permit was opened, Lackey unsuccessfully attempted to change the scope of the requested special use permit, saying Clark’s claims about the illegality of skilled gaming in Virginia did not pertain to King’s request.
“We can’t open a skill gaming facility as the law stands now in the Commonwealth,” he said. “That’s very clear.” He stated the applicant was requesting “a special use permit for amusement” including public billiard parlors and pool rooms, bowling alleys, dance halls, golf driving ranges … and similar forms of public amusement recreation.”
He said King was looking for the flexibility to choose what she put in the space. “We may put a convenience store in there, we may put a billiard room in there, any of the other uses” that are allowable under Virginia code.
“We should have a right as citizens of the community to open a pool hall or to open a skating rink or a health club. So to rely on the illegality of one use that’s being used in other places” is not appropriate for this particular request, he argued.
Lackey previously stated during the first public hearing that his client’s request was “for a skill game facility.”
BZA chairman Manker Stone pointed out that the application for the special use permit filled out and submitted by King specifically listed “sweepstakes, fish tables, and stand-up skill games.”
Clark read into the record a number of letter from property owners writing in opposition to King’s requests. One, from Pauline Martin, said that a “sham operation similar to this” opened in the property now owned by King several years ago, before the pandemic. Neighbors encountered “very late, noisy hours, traffic issues, and even gunshots.”
Leah Manning also wrote about the same previous operation, adding that traffic along U.S. 220 “was queued in the median/crossover, resulting in congestion” and patrons “parked alongside the shoulder of Highway 220, causing dangerous conditions.”
She also complained of “loud, vulgar language from the parking lot” and wrote that a shooting took place in the parking lot.
Ultimately, the board unanimously denied both of King’s requests.
In other matters, the board:
*Denied a special use permit for Manish Patel, who requested the permit to allow for the establishment of an arcade for skill games inside an existing building located at 2484 Virginia Avenue in Collinsville. The permit was denied due to Patel’s failure to appear at the hearing.
*Approved a special use permit from Charles Roark and Star News Corporation for the construction of off-site general advertising signs on properties located at 17521 A.L. Philpott Highway and 35 Preston Road in the Horsepasture District and 2475 Appalachian Drive in the Collinsville District. On a recommendation from Clark, the board’s approval came with the conditions that the permit be exercised within 5 years, the signs will be removed if left vacant for a period of 12 consecutive months, and a form of surety must be submitted prior to the issuance of sign permits guaranteeing the structures would not evolve into unsafe or abandoned structures without means of removal.
*A hearing scheduled for Axton Solar was withdrawn two days before the scheduled meeting. Clark said the company intends to resubmit the case within the next several months.