The Kalispell City Council took a hard stance against future casinos on Nov. 2 by significantly tightening restrictions for where they can operate.
The council voted unanimously to amend the city’s zoning ordinance to restrict the areas where new casinos would be allowed in city limits, heeding the sentiment of a group of outspoken residents against gambling.
Future casinos will only be permitted in the few areas zoned B-5, a district sparsely scattered across town accommodating a variety of business, warehouse and light industrial uses.
Also, new casinos would need a conditional use permit and would have to be a minimum of 600 feet from the property line of churches, schools, residential zones, parks, federal highways and other casinos.
Flathead County is one of the most popular sources of gambling in Montana. Video gaming machines in the Flathead grossed nearly $30 million in 2014, the fourth highest amount in the state behind Yellowstone, Missoula and Cascade counties, according to Department of Justice statistics. From 2013 to 2014, Flathead County posted the largest gain in gaming revenues among the top seven counties with a 7.3 percent increase.
As city attorney Charles Harball noted, cities cannot outright ban gambling, but they can impose limitations to where they can operate.
After several work sessions between the city’s planning board and council, Kalispell made a significant change that could essentially prohibit any new standalone casinos coming to town.
There are 22 casinos in Kalispell’s city limits, many of which are now non-conforming to Kalispell zoning regulations, but they are grandfathered in with the new law. If an existing casino ever moved, it would have to follow the new guidelines.
Councilor Phil Guiffrida, who proposed changing the amendment to include the B-5 zoning requirement and limitations around federal highways, said the new regulations provide a sweeping change that equally balances where casinos might operate in Kalispell.
“We’re done dividing it north and south. This is the way to do it: restricting it all the way within city limits,” he said. “I think it’s just the right thing to do.”
The changes do not affect so-called accessory casinos, which are commonly attached to restaurants, shopping centers and other businesses. Councilors said they did not want to hurt the chances of new restaurants opening in town by increasing regulations for attached casinos.
Businesses seeking to operate accessory casinos will still have to apply for conditional use permits and other regulations already in place, such as the limited number of gaming machines. Casinos are limited to 20 machines and the business must be tied to a state-issued liquor license.
Jim Atkinson, a longtime councilor, said he was proud to enact new legislation that will hopefully reduce the number of problem gamblers in the community.
“Tonight we have just had an opportunity to restrict as well as we can this gambling addiction, this gambling problem,” he said.
“I’m very happy to be part of it.”
The issue of casinos in Kalispell emerged suddenly and gathered steam rather abruptly. In April, Town Pump requested adding an accessory casino to its new gas station on the north end of town, sparking a substantial amount of public input. The city has received 56 emailed comments from 40 individuals in that time, and a large majority was in favor of tightening restrictions on casinos, according to Kalispell staff.
“It’s this addiction stuff that’s so insidious in our town and gambling is a huge addiction. And it’s uncontrollable for some people,” John De Neeve said at Monday’s council meeting. “Be mindful of remembering the bigger picture of addiction and disease. Casinos are a feeding ground for that.”
A group of nearly a dozen people has frequently attended council and planning board meetings over the last six months to express opposition to casinos.
“The character of Kalispell and well being of her citizens are at risk here,” Jenny La Sorte said.