Wilson rejects strict zoning for sweepstakes centers

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After much debate Thursday, the Wilson City Council voted to tread lightly in terms of increased requirements for internet sweepstakes facilities.

Councilman Tom Fyle made the motion to change the parking requirements from one spot per video monitor to one spot per simultaneous player, which passed despite votes against the action from Councilmen Michael Bell and James Johnson. A staff suggestion to increase the separation between facilities to alleviate sweepstakes saturation in the area off U.S. 301 was not approved.

Attorney Will Farris, who represents the owner of two sweepstakes facilities, was among the vocal opponents to increased regulation Thursday. He echoed comments he made earlier this month at the Planning and Design Review Board meeting, noting his clients have not experienced any parking problems and the staff recommendation of 1,000 feet between facilities would effectively put the current operations out of business.

"The business has been in operation and gone through all the proper permitting, but if this passes and retroactively applies to businesses that sit here today, it would close almost all of them," Farris said. "That includes this business with 25 employees - four of them in the audience - who would be out of a job."

The debate stems from a city decision that shifted the facilities from residential and commercial districts to Wilson's industrial zone. While industrial districts exist near the airport and in the city's corporate parks, the development covenants knock the facilities out because they are not considered the highest and best land use. For that reason, the facilities are concentrated on U.S. 301 near the railroad.

"There was a decision by the city to place in heavy industrial areas because you didn't want them across from homes and I understand that," Farris said. "We try to be good stewards when the cafes were placed in that area, so empty buildings that needed work had $150,000 or $200,000 put into them and the fact that those once-vacant buildings could be used for future highway industrial companies is fantastic."

The problem arises because the existing industries in the area the facilities located have lodged complaints with the city. Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz said one complaint explained how the facilities' crowded parking lots made it hard for a company's tractor-trailers to make turns, so staff proposed increasing the need of one spot per machine to one and a half spots. That recommendation was not approved by the planning board nor was it popular among city councilmen. 

Lentz said other complaints referenced the number of facilities in the concentrated area.

"If you are concerned as the businesses were with over-saturation, then the 1,000 feet separation is a solution we're offering you. If that is not a concern, certainly going with what the planning board recommended is fine," Lentz said during a debate before the 7 p.m. meeting. "I don't think there is a right answer here. Going with 'what feels right' is the best way to say it."

Wilson Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer Lantz said the facilities take up potential industry space in an area that is far from being described as abandoned or derelict.

"We're concerned with the number of buildings being used for other purposes like warehouses and these facilities," she said. "That is our concern because we bring clients in and have no buildings to show them. We want to make sure there is not so much proliferation of these cafes that it changes the makeup of the area because the industries were there first."

Resident Bob James said he felt there were too many of the sweepstakes facilities already and was frustrated the businesses are concentrated in east Wilson. 

"The positive is that the majority of these places occupy once-vacant buildings," Lentz said. "The negative is some industries have complained about the side effects of being concentrated in the area they do business."

Other highlights of the 7 p.m. meeting included a $25,000 donation from the Merck Company Foundation for the greenway along Hominy Creek, the awarding of a sidewalk contract on Tarboro Street near Vinson-Bynum School and the rezoning of 3333 U.S. 301 N. to light industrial for development.