City considering changes to casino zoning requirements

City staff are proposing changes to the code requirements related to casinos.

The city planning board will review the proposed changes during their Sept. 13 meeting and will be asked to make a recommendation to the City Commission on whether to adopt the changes.

The proposed change was prompted by the property owner at 2416 11th Ave. S. who is interested in selling the property to a buyer who wants to use a portion of the vacant building for a casino, according to city staff.

City adopts zoning rules, in case voters allow marijuana business operations on November ballot

The building was previously occupied by “Bingo Bonanza,” a casino business, according to the city.

A valid gaming license is still available, leading the property owner and interested buyer to ask the city if a casino could be reestablished on the property, according to staff.

City code has specific land uses related to gaming, which are Type 1 casino, Type 2 casino and accessory gaming.

City developing rules for marijuana should voters opt to allow it in city limits

Type 1 casinos are permitted in some commercial zoning districts, the airport industrial district and both light and heavy industrial zoning districts.

The property in question is zoned C-2 general commercial where a Type 1 casino would be allowed.

But, Type 1 casinos have special requirements for landscaping and distance from schools, churches, parks and playgrounds.

Under the proposed amendment, casinos would still be subject to the normal landscaping requirements in the code that apply to other projects, but it would remove the additional landscaping requirements specific to casinos.

City Commission approves downtown church permit; removes distance requirement for alcohol sales from churches [2020]

According to staff, the property meets the distance requirements from certain types of properties, but would be impacted by the landscaping requirements since it was developed during a time when the current landscaping regulations weren’t in place.

Most of the landscaping on the site is in the public right of way along 25th Street and 11th Avenue South, according to staff, and that doesn’t count toward the code requirements.

Encampment removed from downtown church

Under the code, the applicant would need to allocate 20 percent of the existing property toward landscaping with 50 percent of that along the front of the property.

Since the property is about 27,000 square feet, that would require about 5,400 square feet of new landscaping with 2,700 square feet being required in the area between the building and the front lot line.

That requirement would eliminate about 18 parking spots.

Staff met with the applicant and said that the applicant could comply with the code, apply for a variance or apply for a text amendment to the code.

A variance would be difficult since the property isn’t unique and the applicant had the option to pursue other commercial uses for the building, so staff recommended that the applicant apply for the text amendment, according to staff.

The text amendment is a “significant change in the way gaming land uses would be regulated in the land development code. The amendment is being submitted because staff has faced great difficulties in administering the current regulations in the zoning code. As a result, staff is proposing a much simpler approach – one that relies on the zoning districts to control where casinos can be located rather than one that also relies on specific distance requirements and requires property owners to install landscaping well beyond normal code requirements,” according to the staff report.

The main changes in staff’s proposed amendment include:

  • eliminating the special landscaping requirements for Type 1 casinos. “This does not eliminate the need to landscape casino developments if such projects involve new construction, building expansions, or additional parking areas. It simply removes the requirement to retrofit landscaping for casinos moving into existing buildings,” according to staff;
  • eliminating all the various special distance requirements in locating Type I and Type II casinos near churches, schools, parks, playgrounds, and residential zoning districts. “This is not an issue for the applicant’s request, but has been an issue that has created challenges for both staff to administer as well as other property owners wishing to establish casinos,” according to staff. The state’s distance requirements would remain in effect for anyone seeking a gaming license.

Since staff is proposing to eliminate those special requirements, there’s no reason to have two types of casinos specified in the code, according to staff.

They’re proposing to delete the two types and just have one land use as casino in the code that would be permitted in C-2 and C-4 commercial districts; the airport industrial district; and light and heavy industrial districts. Those are the same districts where casinos are currently allowed.

“On the surface, the amendment could be viewed as increasing the potential for casino relocation and development in the community. This would likely be a concern for decision makers and certainly for residents in the community. However, because the State of Montana still restricts casino/bar licensing as well as enforces their own distance requirements, staff believes that both the financial impact and impact to community character associated with the proposed amendment will be limited,” according to staff.

Staff is also proposing a minor change to made the distinction more clear between casinos and accessory gaming, which is limited to no more than 500 square feet of space that are clearly accessory to bars, hotels and restaurants, according to staff.