City dodged a bullet with casino ruling

If Port Orchard doesn’t wind up with a mini-casino in its city limits — or a thumping big lawsuit — it won’t be the fault of the city council.

When news first came to light last spring the owner of Hank’s Country Inn in Belfair wanted to build a casino in Port Orchard’s Westbay Shopping Center, the city council suddenly realized it had a problem. As much as its members might have wanted to deny the business the conditional-use permit being sought, they found out they couldn’t base their denial on the fact that the casino offered gambling.

Why? Because there was no ordinance on the city’s books prohibiting gambling. Apparently no one had ever anticipated the issue might one day come up.

According to Port Orchard City Attorney Loren Combs, the city could legally deny the casino a permit only if it found some other reason for doing so. But, “That’s going to be difficult here because it’s going into an existing building,” he said. An existing building with utility hookups, parking and structural requirements already in place.

Undeterred, the council in June passed a resolution imposing a six-month moratorium on all future gambling establishments, in effect telegraphing the punch to come.

In July, the council voted to deny the project a permit, claiming the casino’s developer hadn’t submitted detailed architectural drawings of the project’s exterior facade in order to show how it would fit in with the decor of neighboring businesses.

Casino owner Hank O’Sullivan cried foul, arguing the facade issue was simply a red herring being used by the city to address its real objection — gambling. O’Sullivan threatened to sue, but ultimately it was the owners of the Westbay Shopping Center who sued on his behalf, noting the city’s actions had prevented them from collecting rent from the casino that wasn’t built.

Last month, Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay Roof sided with the casino, noting in his decision “This court finds that the Planning Commission and the city council acted improperly with respect to the requirements placed upon the petitioners prior to denial of the (conditional-use permit).”

By now the issue could well be moot, since O’Sullivan no longer has any great desire to build a casino in a city whose leaders clearly don’t want it, and Roof’s decree does not award any monetary damages to the building owner.

Even so, it strikes us as more than a little careless on someone’s part for the city not to have already had a gambling ban on the books if that’s the way residents felt about the matter. Worse, the council clearly exposed the city to an unnecessary risk by denying the permit on flimsy grounds in a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent its own regulations.

It was a bad gamble for the city, even if it does seem to have worked out.

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