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Paper will continue to follow gaming and zoning

December 12, 2009|By BILL KOHLER

Tiny, quiet Jefferson County has been a hotbed for democracy the past several months.

The county of roughly 50,000 people nestled along the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers recently has been the scene for two lively, controversial and polarizing debates in full view of the public.

This month, the county voted in favor of allowing table games at Charles Town Races & Slots.

Last month, the county voted against a major rewrite of its zoning laws.

This is major, once-a-generation kind of stuff here, folks.

Zoning has a lasting impact on a community and a majority of residents apparently felt like the rewrite needed a rewrite. I was kind of surprised by that one. I expected voters to trust the county commissioners, as well as other officials and planners who spent a lot of time on the changes, and give them the nod.

Back to the drawing board for the zoning plan, which could take years and thousands of dollars before it ever gets to voters again.

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As some of you know, Jefferson County is one of the few counties in the state of West Virginia that have a countywide plan.

What some of you might not know is these zoning changes were approved by the commission in October 2008 without a public vote. The county hosted several public forums and the other required elements, but was not mandated to have the county vote on the changes.

That's where the people took over. A small group of citizens started a petition drive to get the voters to decide. Around 3,000 signatures were attained, putting the changes to a referendum.

Special referendums generally cost taxpayers more than $100,000, but the vote turned out to be the fairest, most democratic way of deciding the issue.

And, really, what price can you put on democracy?

As for table games, the voters spoke in favor of adding table games to Charles Town Races & Slots. This outcome did not come as a big surprise. In a tough economy in which jobs are a high priority, people on the fence are going to roll the dice on hope and a better tomorrow.

This is what Penn National, the parent company of Charles Town, was selling to voters -- more jobs, better wages, a boost to the county's economy, millions every year for Jefferson County Schools, a raise for teachers.

They were selling hope.

The opponents pointed out what they felt were the ills of gambling -- addiction, increased traffic, crime. They also said enough is enough. The track has slots and residents get a decent cut. Horse racing was saved by slots and the sport seems to be doing OK in Jefferson County. Why does the track need more ways for people to gamble?

Some wanted a better deal.

Regardless of the side, the campaign gave both sides the chance to get their opinions out there. The media gave plenty of ink and air to the subject (The Herald-Mail ran three days of stories in the week leading up the vote).

Yes, Penn National spent a small fortune in its advertising compared to the minuscule amounts available to the grass-roots opponents, but even without the big bucks, the opponents convinced 4,343 residents to vote against the measure.

And here's how I'll wrap this up with a nice Christmas bow from the Fourth Estate: The Herald-Mail will follow up the promises of Penn National and with the commissioners of Jefferson County.

As for Penn National, we will be your mouthpiece in asking about the number of jobs added and the salaries paid. We will ask motorists and the state Division of Highways about traffic and we'll ask the Charles Town police chief and Jefferson County sheriff about crime.

And we will ask commissioners and candidates about their stand on changes to zoning and why their plan is better or why they like the status quo.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-791-7281 or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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