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2017-12-20 digital edition

Commissioners slam the door on future 8-liner construction

Text: T T
BY ALLEN ESSEX
Reporter


WILLACY COUNTY OFFICIALS meet with citizens and District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to discuss a moratorium on issuing building permits for new 8-liner gaming halls. Most of the sudden surge in building new “maquinitas” is going on in Sebastian and county officials are determined to stop the addition of more betting parlors. Heavy traffic, noise, trash and other problems were reported by local residents who are demanding action. Lyford city officials have capped the number of 8-liners at five and one is closed down for legal reasons and may or may not reopen. 
(Photo by Allen Essex) WILLACY COUNTY OFFICIALS meet with citizens and District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to discuss a moratorium on issuing building permits for new 8-liner gaming halls. Most of the sudden surge in building new “maquinitas” is going on in Sebastian and county officials are determined to stop the addition of more betting parlors. Heavy traffic, noise, trash and other problems were reported by local residents who are demanding action. Lyford city officials have capped the number of 8-liners at five and one is closed down for legal reasons and may or may not reopen. (Photo by Allen Essex) Willacy County commissioners have passed a measure temporarily banning issuance of building permits for 8-liner game rooms, also known as “maquinitas.”

After meeting Thursday in closed session with County/ District Attorney Annette Hinojosa, Commissioners Court members voted unanimously on the motion of Precinct 4 Commissioner Eduardo Gonzales to stop issuing building permits for game rooms. His motion was seconded by Precinct 3 Commissioner Henry De la Paz.

De la Paz previously did not oppose game rooms. In his former role as mayor of Lyford, he oversaw enacting a city ordinance to issue permits for the game rooms and machines, saying income from city fees and increased business for local convenience stores (and sales tax revenue) were a good thing as well as improvements made to old buildings being a plus for the city.

But the sudden surge of eight-liner openings, mainly in Sebastian and the surrounding area, has drawn numerous complaints, County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra said.

During the public comment session, two local men pressed officials with questions about what is being done, or can be done, to control or close down the makeshift casinos that have taken over their village, which has no city government or police force of its own.

Sebastian resident Joe Brickman said the small town is overrun with traffic and noise.

“Two years ago, there were one or two game rooms in the vicinity,” he said. “The changes are very dramatic, huge, especially for people who live near the game rooms. I’d say that’s got to be two or three dozen homes, families who are very dramatically affected. First is the traffic, I mean hundreds and hundreds of cars... Now I guess there are shuttle buses bringing them in, right across the street from us, there are 18 or 25 of them in each shuttle bus. I don’t know where they’re coming from. They’re not coming from Sebastian.”

Also speaking out was resident Stanley Gonzales. He asked if it would be possible for the county to have a comment period on any new rule concerning 8-liners. “If this rule that would be created is only going to be applied to new businesses, this gaming rooms, these 8-liner businesses, but I would ask that you consider putting some type of moratorium on existing game rooms. But what would stop an existing game room from saying (to someone wishing to set up more gaming machines), ‘You can’t build one (game room) but you can put them on mine?’ They would be getting around the rule.”

Gonzales also asked what would stop someone from getting a building permit for a convenience store and later converting it to a “maquinita.”

“Two months later, they pull their other stuff out and put some machines in there?” He said there should be some kind of clause in any new rule passed by county commissioners that would prevent converting other businesses into 8-liner parlors, Gonzales said.

“Finally, if this is the first step in helping the citizens of this county to eliminate these, I would strongly urge the Commissioners Court to create a committee made up of citizens, some businessmen, perhaps some clergy, even the chamber of commerce, to provide information to provide advice, to help the county move forward,” Gonzales said.

Brickman estimated that 80 or 90 percent of the people visiting the game rooms are not from Sebastian.

“I know the game rooms try to be good neighbors but there’s only so much they can do,” he said. “The noise of the cars, the honking, the peeling out on Friday and Saturday night. They try to control the litter, but when the wind picks up it blows into adjacent yards like you’d never see otherwise. In our case, the security lights are so bright. I have to block the light to see so I can walk across the lawn.”

But last week, a caller told the Raymondville Chronicle that 8- liner operators were dumping large piles of plastic bags filled with trash and garbage at a site near a Sebastian Municipal Utility District water tower. When a reporter went to the scene, several men were burning a large amount of trash in a “borrow pit,” county officials later said is illegal.

A borrow pit is a large hole where earth has been removed for constructing expressway overpasses. When there is sufficient rain, it makes a small lake, but that pit was dry.

Brickman said he realizes that Texas counties don’t have zoning authority to control noise and other problems, Brickman said.

But he cannot understand why Cameron and Hidalgo Counties have been able to shut down their game rooms but Willacy doesn’t seem to be able to,” he said. “Are these game rooms operating within state law, or are they not? If they’re not, we shouldn’t even be having these conversations. If they are, I will put up and shut up.”

Brickman asked commissioners, “If 8-liners were operating illegally in surrounding counties and were shut down, do Willacy officials really believe they are operating legally here?”

2017-12-20 / Front Page

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