Sports Gambling Kiosk Decision Postponed in Westbrook
The Zoning Commission has tabled a decision on a controversial application that, if approved, would allow for 12 sports gambling kiosks in a portion of the Dead Eye Saloon Restaurant. A public hearing over the matter opened on March 27.
In late February, the Zoning Commission accepted an application from Walter Bartkiewicz to place 12 sports gambling kiosks inside a restaurant located at 110 Boston Post Road.
After the public hearing closed on March 27, commission members decided they would table deciding on the application until the town attorney was available to offer guidance.
Zoning Enforcement Officer Steve Hnatuk said he interpreted gambling kiosks as arcade use. Zoning regulations define an arcade device as “(a)ny mechanical or electronic device or apparatus operated indoors for amusement, pleasure, test of skill, competition or sport, where the use or operation is conditioned upon payment of a consideration either by insertion of a coin, electronic card, or token into a slot or aperture on such device or by payment in any other fashion.”
However, since the zoning regulations for the town do not explicitly mention gambling or gambling kiosks, the commission thought it best to get legal counsel before voting on the matter. The next Zoning Commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 24.
Previously, Bartkiewicz explained to the Harbor News that the gambling kiosks would be placed in a separate area away from the main dining room. Bartkiewicz said the proposed kiosk area is where a dance floor in the restaurant was located.
Online sports gambling went live in Connecticut in 2021 and Hnatuk said state regulations are very strict. Bartkiewicz noted that regulations prohibit gambling locations within 25 miles of either the Pequot Reservation or the Mohegan Reservation. Bartkiewicz said that he wanted to add the kiosks because, being between New Haven and the casinos, he thought adding the kiosks made sense. A recommendation from the Planning Commission read into the record at the March 27 hearing found the application consistent with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and with a need to diversify the town’s economy. A letter of endorsement from a dance studio located on the property was also read into the record.
“Anything you can do on your phone you can do on these machines,” Bartkiewicz said during the public hearing, comparing the machines to popular sports betting apps legal in Connecticut like DraftKings or FanDuel. Bartkiewicz said the kiosks would allow for betting on football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, and horse racing.
“The only thing different is you’ll be eating and drinking now; you won’t be in your living room,” he added.
The public hearing over the application drew a substantially larger than usual crowd, with members of the public overwhelmingly arguing against the application.
Those against the application argued that the inclusion of and promotion of sports betting goes against the small-town character of Westbrook, could attract “a different clientele” to town, could be a burden on police, and could send a negative message to youth in town.
Michael Horehlad said that, if approved, the application could lead to more traffic, littering, and even more unsavory behavior in town.
“You don’t think gambling goes along with crime?” Horehlad asked. “Why don’t you put a sign saying attention all criminals.” Horehlad further noted that the kiosks would most likely contain large amounts of counts.
Other speakers also mentioned the fact that the kiosks would be cash operated and could be a target for crooks, a position Bartkiewicz pushed back on.
Bartkiewicz said that nobody under 21 would be allowed in the gambling area and that IDs and credit cards would be checked. Bartkiewicz said that winnings would be credited to bank accounts when the game was over with no cash exchanged. Couriers would come periodically collect the money in the machines, and short of stealing the machine itself, Bartkiewicz said it would be “impossible” to get to the money illegally.
Chris Ehlert pointed out that the kiosks classified as arcade use would allow the business to house up to three machines without requiring a special permit application. Ehlert said he had no problem with three machines but found 12 to be excessive. Bartkiewicz said that in order to acquire the license needed to house the kiosks, the state requires at least 12 machines.
Though it has no bearing on the kiosk application, several speakers referenced a recent decision by the Zoning Commission to allow a retail marijuana store to potentially open in town. That application had been vocally opposed by members of the public but still was approved. Speakers feared that would happen again with the kiosk application, with one member of the public going so far as to say that if the kiosk application was approved, “(t)he next motion should be to rename the town Vice-Brook.”
Every speaker who spoke against the application received applause after they were finished speaking. However, Zoning Commission Chairman Harry Ruppenicker Jr. took time to point out that just because the public sentiment might be loud, that doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to zoning.
“Certain things are not relevant to zoning,” Ruppenicker said. For example, Ruppenicker said by law, the commission cannot take into account the size of the crowd that turns out to speak at a public hearing or the potential for crimes that may or may not happen.
“You can’t say, well, that’s not the kinds of business we want here; you can get that opinion on any type of business,” Ruppenicker said while adding, “(w)e’d love to be popular too,” in reference to sometimes having to rule against public sentiment.
One speaker spoke in favor of the application at the hearing. Thomas Conboy said that though he wasn’t strongly in favor of the application, he could think of no reason to oppose it.
“I don’t see how what’s proposed is any different than what you can do at home. I see this as a legal use. There are at least five or six other sportsbook kiosks in the state,” Conboy said.
“This is a small businessman trying to make his business survive. Frankly, I don’t see the big deal in opposing it,” Conboy continued.
Conboy also said he didn’t buy the argument that traffic would be an issue should the application be approved.
“Grove Beach Road North is a major road. In the summer, there is going to be traffic,” Conboy said.
Bartkiewicz said that he expects the Dead Eye Saloon restaurant to reopen in early May. He said that if he is granted approval for the gambling kiosks, he may be able to keep the restaurant open year-round as opposed to seasonally as it is now.