Casino Could Be Built Without Zoning Change: Fairfax County Executive

Casino Could Be Built Without Zoning Change: Fairfax County Executive
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RESTON, VA — Questions raised about whether state and local laws would allow a casino to be built in Fairfax County, where it would fit best, what gaming is allowed and what government bodies must OK a plan were answered fully, or in part, Wednesday.

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill responded Wednesday to questions posed by Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn (D) about Comstock Companies’ plans to build a casino at or near the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station.

"There's a lot of chatter in Hunter Mill right now about a possible casino, and certainly there have been a couple of bills in the General Assembly," Alcorn said in October. "So, I don't think we know for sure that there's going to be legislation next year. But certainly if there is, I thought it would be helpful for us to have more information about the process."

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved Alcorn’s motion at its Oct. 24 meeting for Hill to provide answers about Comstock’s plans.

The following are Alcorn’s questions and Hill’s responses:

Please verify whether all 5 local jurisdictions in Virginia where state law currently authorizes a casino (Danville, Bristol, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond) formally or informally requested that the General Assembly authorize a casino in their jurisdiction, and how that request was made.

The path for authorization for the 5 local jurisdictions was different. In some cases, localities expressed support for casino authority by passing resolutions or by working with legislators to ensure their locality was included in the final legislation. In at least one case, in the City of Richmond, there was never a clear indication of support to the General Assembly for casino authority. As you probably know, two casino referendums in Richmond have failed. At present, casinos have opened in Bristol, Portsmouth, and Danville, with an additional casino planned in Norfolk in partnership with the federally recognized Pamunkey Indian Tribe.

Under Virginia law, what is considered to be a casino, versus, for example, a location or event that has electronic gaming machines?

Chapter 41 defines a “casino” as a location where games such as blackjack, poker, craps, slots, and similar games occur. Va. Code § 58.1-4100. These are traditional “gambling” games, and these locations must be licensed by the Virginia Lottery Board.

What process would the Board of Supervisors use to “select a preferred casino gaming operator” as called for in the state law authorizing casino gambling? What would be the timing of such a selection process as it relates to authorization by the General Assembly and a countywide referendum?

Utilizing the evaluation factors outlined in § 58.1-4107 the County would be encouraged to conduct a competitive selection process. Competitive selection options include: 1) Competitive Negotiations (Request for Proposals) and 2) Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act (PPEA) Solicited Proposal process.

Does the county’s current zoning ordinance include a casino use, or would it need to be amended?

If we had to make a determination today, we would likely say a casino is most similar to Public Entertainment. Under this determination, a casino would be permitted in those specific districts with Board of Supervisors approval. However, on a case by case basis, if a casino was proposed in a form consistent with the approved layout, there are existing developments in Tysons and Reston that could fit a casino into their current approval (with no additional Board approval). That said, any casino proposal that could meet those requirements is likely to be very limited.

Would the location of a casino need to be specified in an area plan of the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan?

At this time staff does not believe a casino would need to be identified independently in the Comprehensive Plan if the proposed use (non-residential) and intensity are consistent with the Comprehensive Plan recommendations for the proposed site.

If a bill such as SB 1543 and HB 2499 were ultimately passed and signed by the Governor, would the required countywide referendum be legally required to specify the casino location or could multiple potential locations be authorized in the referendum?

The current language of Va. Code § 58.1-4123 states that a referendum for a casino must include both “the name of the city” in which the election is held and “the proposed location of the casino gaming establishment.” Based on that language, a referendum would only include one proposed location. Of course, if the General Assembly amends Chapter 41 to allow counties (or Fairfax County specifically) to permit a casino, it could amend other aspects of its Casino Gaming law, including an amendment to allow multiple locations to be included on a single referendum.

Alcorn asked an additional question: Did the previous legislation specify anything regarding the casino’s operation – location, hours of operation, food and beverage service, accessory uses like convention space, etc.?

An ordinance defining operation would be an avenue to address hours of operation.

Reaction From Reston Leaders

John Farrell, president of the Reston Association Board of Directors, released the following statement:

“Reston Association assures its membership that it is committed to opposing the establishment of a casino in Reston. Such a project disregards the principles recently set forward in the Reston Master Plan, which was adopted after dozens of community meetings and feedback from the Reston community. We are aware of no location in Reston which has been approved as a site for ‘public entertainment’ and find Mr. Hill’s statement baffling. Should the General Assembly approve a bill authorizing a referendum, the Reston community will demonstrate its opposition at the ballot box and elsewhere.”

Lynne Mulston, president of the Reston Citizens Association, gave the following statement in response to Patch’s request to local leaders for comment:

“Reston is a planned community. An entertainment district with a casino is not in line with the community's vision for the future of Reston. Over the past three years, thirty members of our community, including representatives from developers, worked with County staff, interest groups, and the public to craft a Comprehensive Plan for the next decade of Reston's growth. In the community's plan that was approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the Wiehle Metro Station area is envisioned to be an urban neighborhood with encouragement for higher education, research and development, and tech uses. A casino would drastically change the vision for Reston. Reston Citizens Association (RCA) stands with Supervisor Alcorn in opposition to a casino in Reston.”

After news of Hill’s responses were released on Wednesday, Suzanne Zurn, who started a petition in October to oppose Comstock’s casino plans, told Patch that the petition recently got its 4,000th signature.

"We believe that introducing a casino would have detrimental effects on our community's social fabric, safety, economic stability, and overall quality of life," Zurn wrote in the introduction to the petition.

Patch Breaks News Of Revived Casino Plan

On Sept. 25, Patch broke the story about Comstock’s casino plans. Alcorn told Patch then that Comstock had not come to him about its intentions to build a casino at either Reston Station or the Greensboro Metro Station in Tysons. Both locations are in the Hunter Mill District.

The possibility of a casino being built along Metro's Silver Line in Fairfax County first came to light during the final days before the end of the first half of the 2023 Virginia General Assembly session, when similar bills were introduced by Sen. David Marsden (D-Burke) and Del. Wren Williams (R-Stuart).

If the legislation were passed and the governor signed it, the board of supervisors would be given the authority to put a referendum on a future ballot. County residents then would get the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to put a casino at one of Metro’s seven Silver Line stations outside the Capital Beltway.

Read all of Patch's reporting on the proposed casino at the Wiehle-Reston East Station at Silver Line Casino.

"I oppose putting a casino on the Silver Line and Comstock should be aware of my position on that, it has not changed since I first became aware of casino interest in the Dulles corridor late last year," Alcorn said, in October. "The land around these stations is already valuable for so many other socially beneficial uses, and plopping a casino into these emerging transit oriented development communities during their formative years is a bad idea.”

Marsden told Patch earlier this month that he was not only planning to reintroduce his legislation, but he was expanding the bill.

"The Silver Line was created for high density development and business owners paid a tax to build the Dulles Access Road and the Silver Line," Marsden said. "They paid to have that done and if we can put in a conference center in an entertainment district, anchored by a casino and some hotels, it creates a tremendous number of construction jobs, good union jobs, to work in those hotels."

Although Marsden initially confirmed in September that Reston Station was one of the locations under consideration, he has strongly advocated for building a casino on two large tracts adjacent to the Greensboro Station. Located near the intersection of Routes 7 and 123, the properties are currently owned by Home Depot USA Inc. and 1902 LLC.

The same properties were the subject of a mixed-use redevelopment proposal Comstock made on Oct. 27, 2022 as part of Fairfax County's Site Specific Plan Amendment Process. Rather than pursue the proposal any farther, the developer opted to submit the nomination as a "placeholder" for future discussions with the county.