It’s sad that we’ve become so cynical — so used to our elected officials lying to us. But the chicanery and sleaze around the latest casino shenanigans in Raleigh really hit an all-time low.
Thanks to WRAL, we now know the casino shenanigans in Rockingham County got quite a covert, sneaky start:
When Sharon Ellis heard rumors that a casino might be built down the highway from her home in Rockingham County, she called the county’s planning and zoning office.
“They were very kind on the phone, but he did kind of laugh,” Ellis recalled. “He said people can stir up quite the rumors in the county. It kind of gave me a little bit of assurance.”
That was the first week of July, Ellis said, and the next week she called county commissioners with the same question. They were vague, Ellis said, telling her that a 192-acre plot that was up for rezoning would be the biggest project in county history, but they couldn’t provide details.
“They called it an economic development project that would be good for our county,” Ellis told WRAL News this month. “And they just stated that casinos are illegal in North Carolina.”
What was happening behind the scenes suggests that key details of a legislative plan to legalize commercial casinos in North Carolina were already known, to some, perhaps including the son of a powerful Republican lawmaker pushing the plan. Zoning inquiries by a national casino developer and a little-noticed county rule change came before the Rockingham casino effort was public knowledge.
Shifting explanations from Rockingham County leadership about that change raise questions about who knew what, and when, as county residents and rank-and-file lawmakers at the statehouse complain about transparency.
The casino issue has become a political wedge that has divided Republican lawmakers and delayed a $30 billion state budget — an impasse that has prevented teachers from receiving expected raises and blocked a provision that would deliver health insurance to hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolinians.
Casinos are legal only on tribal lands in North Carolina. But key members of the state legislature’s Republican majority – including Rockingham County state Sen. Phil Berger – insist the state budget being negotiated now must include language authorizing new casinos. Closed-door talks on the issue date back at least to the spring.
Even though casinos were illegal when Ellis made her calls in early July, Rockingham County commissioners had voted in June on a key change to county ordinances that would help pave the way for a casino to be built if the legislature changes the law.
That unanimous June 19 vote removed a special use permit requirement for electronic gaming operations in the county and changed the definition of Rockingham’s “highway commercial” zoning designation so it would allow any activity licensed by the state.
Few noticed. No one spoke at a public hearing on the issue. But the vote became crucial in August when the board of commissioners, again unanimously, voted to rezone the 192-acre plot next to a summer camp for children with special needs as “highway commercial.”
That designation allows a wide variety of commercial uses such as gas stations, hotels and restaurants. Now, with the ordinance change, it would also allow a casino, if state lawmakers authorize them. Lawmakers haven’t formally released a casino bill, but WRAL News obtained a draft copy in mid-July.
Hundreds of people attended the August rezoning meeting, filling overflow rooms at the county government complex to protest the decision. Suddenly, an unannounced casino plan backed by a national developer that had requested the rezoning, hired lobbyists at the General Assembly, and whose executives had given state lawmakers campaign donations going back to 2022, didn’t seem like a rumor.
“It went from being kind of an absurd thought … to being confirmed that was in fact the plan,” Ellis said.
All five Rockingham County commissioners, including Berger’s son, Kevin, either declined to speak with WRAL News about the zoning votes or didn’t return messages.
According to public records on the June 19 vote, unnamed county leadership asked to redefine highway commercial zoning by amending the county’s unified development ordinance, or UDO, a collection of land use rules used by local governments to manage growth. Planning and Zoning Director Hiram Marziano said the request came from the County Manager Lance Metzler and County Attorney Clyde Albright, and that it likely came in May.
How they knew in May or June that the UDO needed to change remains unclear. The county planning board gave preliminary approval to the UDO amendment a week before county commissioners finalized it on June 19.
Planning board member Jim Fink later said that the planning board’s chairman, Paul Ksieniewicz, instructed him before that meeting to not question the change.
“When I inquired about [the UDO amendment] they said the commissioners had asked for that,” said Fink, who voted against the amendment. “I said, ‘What do you mean they don’t want us to ask questions?”
Ksieniewicz told WRAL News that he didn’t recall saying that, and that the UDO amendment wasn’t tied to the casino.
“The two are unrelated,” he said. “The planning board had absolutely no knowledge of putting a casino there.”
Albright responded to questions in writing, but his answers shifted as WRAL News probed how he knew the UDO amendment was needed, unless county leaders knew a casino was planned.
Albright initially said he suggested the amendment after noticing in March a bill to legalize sports betting moving through the General Assembly. That became law in June, legalizing mobile sports betting, betting lounges near major sports venues and betting on horse races.[…]
There’s no representing of US going on in Raleigh. True representatives don’t lie to people they’re supposed to be representing. We have a bunch of low-to-NO-character types sitting around waiting for more cash and to ask ‘How high?’ when their out-of-town / out-of-state deep-pocket ‘massas’ says JUMP.