A casino in a tent? Norfolk zoning rules could allow it

NORFOLK — Voters have already started deciding whether to approve a new waterfront casino downtown.

If approved, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and its partners expect to start construction on the lot next to Harbor Park in 2021 and wrap up sometime in 2023.

At the Sept. 10 Planning Commission meeting, city staff rolled out a proposed change to the zoning code that would incorporate casino uses for properties in the Downtown Waterfront district.

Owners of property in that district who can get a license from the state Lottery Board could apply with the city for a conditional use permit to develop a casino. But those who have reached certain criteria — like having a casino contract with the city and winning approval for a casino with a referendum — would be able to host gambling on the property “by right,” meaning without seeking further city approval.

This led Commissioner Kathryn Shelton to ask about the possibility of the Pamunkey immediately starting gambling in a tent or trailer if the Planning Commission and City Council were to add the casino language to the zoning code.

Shelton said she had recently heard a presentation from a tribal representative who expected funds to start flowing in “immediately after November, because they were looking at putting a temporary facility like a tent at Harbor Park,” she said during the meeting. So could it happen? At the meeting, the answer wasn’t immediately clear.

Planning Director George Homewood said the city has allowed banks under construction to do business in a trailer the building was going up.

“I’m not sure we would automatically say no to that,” he told the commission.

There would be some measure of approval required from the city, but that may be “something as simple as the building permit signoff,” he said recently in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot.

But Jay Smith, a spokesman for the tribe, said this week it has no plans to do business in a tent or trailer.

However, he left the door open, saying the tribe would be open to it if the city asked.

Mayor Kenny Alexander said Friday that this was the first he’d heard of the possibility, but it wasn’t something he was interested in, even with the possibility of realizing some tax revenue right away.

“We have not discussed it, but I’m not that warm and fuzzy about some type of temporary facility,” Alexander said. “If there was a tent or trailer, that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Alexander said the city was pitched on a half-billion-dollar hotel-casino resort, not some kind of short-term gaming hall.

For the time being, the decision on adding casinos to the zoning code has been put off. It was scheduled for a public hearing at the Sept. 24 Planning Commission meeting but was continued. Homewood said staff initially thought they needed to have something in place by the time the referendum was concluded, but now they believe that’s not necessary.

In the meantime, he said, he and his staff will be reviewing the proposed zoning change again with the (temporary use?) questions in mind.