LUMBERTON — The first day of the Lumberton City Council’s two-day planning conference ended with confusion and frustration over proposed zoning measures to regulate electronic gaming establishments.
The council did not take action during the Wednesday meeting, but decided to discuss the zoning measures further before holding a public hearing or voting on the issue.
A citywide moratorium on sweepstakes cafes in effect since 2010 is set to expire June 10.
Rob Price, a former city attorney who is continuing to advise the council on the matter, stressed Wednesday that moratoriums are intended to be temporary.
“It is my legal opinion with 100 percent confidence that if anyone ever challenges the existing moratorium … this city will lose,” Price said.
Councilman Erich Hackney wasn’t convinced.
“If the courts said they’re illegal, why not keep on with the moratorium?” he said.
The proposed zoning measures would limit the hours, location and size of sweepstakes cafes. The measures are intended to give the city a second level of protection, behind a state statute that is vulnerable to court challenges and is being interpreted differently by local governments. Additionally the industry has been adept at using new software to sidestep the law.
Councilman Leon Maynor argued that zoning laws could serve the same purpose as a moratorium.
“But it’s still getting what we want accomplished — no permits. That’s all we want to accomplish, everything else is out there as a legality of some kind,” Maynor said.
District Attorney Johnson Britt has said newer machines that show a player’s winnings before the game begins — supposedly making the prize independent of the game — still don’t meet legal muster. The City Council and law enforcement have agreed to enforce the ban accordingly.
Until that changes, Brandon Love, director of the Planning Board, said requests for conditional-use permits will be denied even without the moratorium.
The proposed ordinance was amended to include input from council.
Under the latest version, hours of operation would be 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Councilman John Cantey was given his wish that sweepstakes cafes be closed on Sundays.
The Planning Board proposed limiting the number of machines to one machine for every 50 square feet with a maximum of 40 machines.
The council plans to hold a public hearing in June.
The rest of the meeting centered on projects proposed for consideration in the next fiscal year’s budget.
Howard Marlowe, of the Marlowe Group in Washington, D.C., told the council about a few federal grants it could pursue. The group has helped the city secure grants for police, fire, transportation and infrastructure needs.
Marlowe suggested the city pursue a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to improve Carthage Road, the river walk and other aspects of downtown.
Kevin Dyson, from Lekson Associates Inc., pitched converting the city’s street and security lights to LED. Although the initial cost for those fixtures is high, Dyson said LED lights last longer, require less maintenance and are more efficient. Dyson said electrical costs for LED lights can be 30 to 40 percent lower. The city spends about $300,000 a year to power those lights, according to City Manager Wayne Horne.
Councilman Don Metzger proposed a “facility fee” to help distribute the cost of powering street lights. Currently, that expense is included in the base rate all electrical utility customers pay.
Metzger suggested removing that cost from the base rate, and instead charging a flat-rate streetlight operation fee of about $3, which Metzger said would not affect bills much. About 1,200 customers who currently get water and sewer services from the city but not electricity would also pay the fee.
In other business:
— Jason Epley, of Benchmark Planning, pitched ideas for the city’s next Land Use Plan, focusing mainly on downtown. Epley presented the ideas — which include more access to the Lumber River, a bandstand in the downtown plaza, directional signs throughout town and additional parking near the Carolina Civic Center — to Revitalize Downtown Lumberton in March.
— Tim Taylor, director of Recreation, updated the council on work at Meadowbrook Cemetery. The city has begun paving some of the cemetery and rebuilding a brick wall around it. Taylor asked that the council consider budgeting for more updates, as well as building a columbarium — a wall with niches for urns — to maximize space left in the cemetery and provide families with a low-cost burial option.
— The council tried out the public version of a new Geographic Information System map. Users can view a map of Lumberton with streets, flood zones, voting districts, commercial zones and more. A private version will allow city employees to also pull up permits, zoning requests and building violations for a given property and see the layout of utility infrastructure. The system is intended to make paper documents accessible online and make repairs easier for Public Works and other employees.
— Retail Strategies Group presented phase one of a retail recruitment plan for the city, including research on which companies are not yet in Lumberton, which want to expand and which would be successful. The council will have to decide whether to sign a contract with Retail Strategies Group for it to start executing the plan.
— The North Carolina Housing Finance Agency asked that the city purchase the new Lumberton Christian Care Center building and lease it to the center. Doing so would alleviate maintenance costs for the nonprofit, according to Mary Reca Todd, of the agency’s Supportive Housing Development Program.
— The council discussed a date for the opening of the new Lumberton Police Department on Godwin Avenue. In a closed session, the council discussed liquidating damages at the department, which has had recurring issues with its floor and walls, so that the city could be compensated.
— The council discussed updating the generator at the wastewater treatment plant to be more efficient.