he Ocean Downs Casino in Berlin, Maryland, could have some upgrades if a proposal to add a Casino Entertainment District zoning classification makes into the county zoning code.
The Worcester County Planning Commission last Thursday agreed to recommend that change to the Worcester County Commissioners, who have authority to amend the code to accommodate land use and development circumstances, Ocean City Today reports.
The amendment the planning commission is recommending would create the Casino Entertainment District as a permitted use in the A-2 (Agricultural) district and establish regulations as an overlay district.
As it stands, the casino exists as an accessory use to Ocean Downs racetrack, which does not allow other uses often associated with casinos, such as retail shops, hotels, theaters and exhibition space. The overlay district would allow the casino to exist independently.
Attorney Joseph Moore said it would not be a traditional rezoning. “It is meant to be a careful text change which relates to just casino operations, so that’s not a rezoning so that you can put a casino anywhere in the C-2 or C-3 district in Worcester County,” Moore said. “It’s an overlay, which, of course, has a review of each facility which would seek to be there.”
Planning commission members voted unanimously to give the amendment a favorable recommendation. It will next go to the county commissioners meeting for a public hearing, which must precede any further consideration.
Although the original application for the overlay designation listed the minimum required lot area for a Casino Entertainment District as 90 acres of land, it was reduced to 50 acres to be applicable to more areas.
Bobbi Sample, manager of Ocean Downs, said that at this point, there are no expansion plans, particularly in light of COVID-19. “We do hope to renovate and modernize our racetrack club house at some point and will evaluate opportunities in the future that make sense for the property and the surrounding communities that benefit from the tax money generated through the casino,” Sample said.
Planning Commissioner Brooks Clayville asked if there was anything in the amendment that would conflict with operating the casino or horse racing. “We have no plans to do away with horse racing at Ocean Downs,” Sample said. “It’s actually beneficial to the casino when we do have live racing in the summer.”
Live racing started for the 71st season last month, but spectators must view the racing from seating inside the clubhouse because of the covid-19 pandemic. The facility is subject to social distancing and a 50 percent occupancy restriction. Moore added that the stables were included as a use for the overlay district so that horses can be boarded there even during the off-season.
When asked, Moore said that according to the state legislation regarding casinos, a hotel cannot be on the property if it has a direct or indirect legal relationship with the casino.
For fiscal year 2019, Ocean Downs raked in $4.48 million that was split between the county and Berlin, Ocean Pines and Ocean City. In fiscal year 2018, the casino produced $3.9 million.