Originally created 01/29/97

Video poker temporarily legal in Aiken County



AIKEN - Video poker is once again legal in Aiken County - at least temporarily.

Circuit Judge Costa Pleicones agreed Tuesday to issue three temporary injunctions that will allow businesses operating the games on June 30, 1995, to reopen in the county and cities of Aiken and North Augusta, said attorneys representing poker operators.

"It will be business as usual as of June 30, 1995," Columbia attorney Richard Harpootlian said.

The decision came after an hour-long, closed-door meeting with lawyers in the judge's chambers.

In separate lawsuits, operators have asked the court to throw out zoning ordinances in the cities of Aiken and North Augusta that severely restrict where poker machines can legally be located. They also want to force Aiken County to begin issuing new gaming licenses.

Judge Pleicones, who refused to discuss details, said Tuesday that he will put the injunctions into a written order "within 48 hours."

No date has been set for a hearing on the merits of the lawsuits.

The injunctions will temporarily force Aiken and North Augusta to stop enforcing their zoning restrictions on the games, Mr. Harpootlian said.

The order will also force Aiken County to issue new permits for as many as 400 poker businesses that were operating two years ago, Aiken County Administrator Bill Shepherd said.

The county has refused to issue gaming licenses until Aiken County Council finishes discussing a proposed zoning change, which would keep the machines 150 feet from neighboring properties. Not having a county license carries a criminal penalty of up to $200 in fines and 30 days in jail.

New businesses would fall under the proposed zoning restrictions, he said.

"Back in 1995, we issued permits to a person, not a location," Mr. Shepherd said. "It's appears the judge's ruling will say that's a sufficient requirement ... The onus will be on (operators) to prove they were there in 1995."

Council was expected to have a public hearing on the matter and approve the zoning limits on second reading late Tuesday. Final approval requires three readings.

The planning commission has recommended the county take a more hard line stance. The commission wants to keep the 150-foot setbacks, require poker places have at least 15 parking spaces for every 1,000 square foot of building and limit the games to areas zoned Urban Development - heavy commercial districts.

The county has scrambled to put zoning limits in place for the games since the state Supreme Court in November threw out the results of a county-by-county referendum held statewide two years ago that banned video poker payouts in 12 counties, including Aiken.