Board looks to regulate sweepstake parlors
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – You make a bet, you press a button, virtual cards are dealt on a video screen and … three of a kind! You’ve just won a cash prize!
That’s gambling, right?
Actually, no, at least not for now. Internet sweepstakes games, which mimic video poker and other computer-based gambling games, were declared legal in March by the North Carolina State Court of Appeals. The case has been appealed to the State Supreme Court, but in the meantime, officials in Huntersville are looking for ways to restrict Internet sweepstakes games within their jurisdiction.
At last week’s town board meeting, town attorney Bob Blythe, said the town can’t outlaw the sweepstakes but it can decide where it will allow the games, “as long as it’s not so restrictive that it effectively makes it illegal.”
Approaching that line without crossing it, Blythe said, “is the real challenge.”
The town wants to implement the restrictions because, while they’re technically not the same, gambling and Internet sweepstakes are similar. Like video poker or slot machines, Internet sweepstakes are games of chance that offer a prize.
The difference is that you have to put money into a video poker or slot machine to play. With Internet sweepstakes games, you are allowed to play for free, but you must first buy an Internet card from the business operator to access the sweepstakes website and find out if your “free” entry is a winner.
The courts have found enough of a difference between the two games that they’ve ruled the state has the authority to outlaw the former, but not the latter.
Huntersville Police Chief Phil Potter said restrictions on such businesses because they bring the same challenges as gambling parlors: They are typically open very late at night, there are large amounts of cash coming and going, and they often lead to loitering, noise disturbances and other crimes.
If the amendment to the zoning ordinance passes as expected next month, such games would only be allowed in a very few locations, most of them on U.S. 21 near the intersections of Sam Furr Road, Gilead Road, and a few hundred yards north of Alexanderana Road. The games would also only be allowed as a primary use, meaning only businesses whose primary purpose is to provide Internet sweepstakes games could have them: gas stations and other businesses could not.
Internet sweepstakes cafés also would not be allowed within 400 feet of schools, churches, residences or other sweepstakes cafés. Sales or consumption of alcohol and smoking would be prohibited.
“I’ve had at least three phone calls in the last six months wanting to (open an Internet sweepstakes business) downtown,” Commissioner Charles Guignard, who owns a number of buildings in the downtown area, said during the public hearing. “Now I know I will have a legitimate reason to not let them be here.”
Cornelius Town Manager Anthony Roberts said he expected Cornelius will pass similar restrictions.
Lincoln County will hold a public hearing on Aug. 6 on proposed changes to its zoning ordinance similar to those that Huntersville is expected to adopt.
In Mooresville, the criteria for new Internet sweepstakes businesses are even more strict, with operating hours restricted to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.