In a blow to two groups looking to start horse racing tracks in the area, the Prince William County Circuit Court upheld a November deadline yesterday for establishing tracks in the county, refusing to grant a five-year extension on a referendum allowing parimutuel betting.
The decision puts a time crunch on efforts to build tracks in Prince William County, because the window for getting licenses and zoning changes closes in four months. Track promoters had hoped for more time when it was found that the court had mistakenly never issued an order officially recognizing the results of the 1994 referendum, which is valid for five years. The oversight apparently was discovered a few weeks ago.
County Attorney Sharon E. Pandak successfully argued yesterday that the court should back-date the order to Nov. 30, 1994. Attorneys for the group headed by Middleburg businessman James J. Wilson wanted the referendum clock to start ticking this year and run through 2004. The group is pushing for a racetrack north of Haymarket near the Loudoun County line.
"I'm not here to argue whether a racetrack is good or bad," Pandak said. But to give the referendum another five years would "make a mockery" of the will of county residents, who voted thinking that the deadline would expire in 1999, she said.
"What they are trying to do," she said of her opponents, "is gain some sort of time advantage."
Gail Prentiss Miller, an attorney for the Wilson group, argued that the court did not have the authority to back-date the order. Circuit Court Judge Leroy F. Millette Jr. replied that the court "has no authority not to enter an order."
With Millette's decision, the racetrack saga resumes its earlier gallop, which started when two companies announced this month that they would try to build tracks in the county.
The first proposal, offered by Colonial Downs Inc. just two days before the Wilson group's plan, would establish a mile-long steeplechase track on top of what is now a landfill in the Town of Dumfries. Members of the Dumfries Town Council will have full say over the rezoning necessary for the track. Thus far they have expressed cautious support of the plan.
Colonial Downs's attorney, John Foote, said the company has been pursuing its application without regard to the possible five-year extension.
The Wilson track, meanwhile, falls within county jurisdiction. Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), in whose district the track would be, has said from the beginning that he would oppose the site on the grounds that the rural, residential area could not support the influx of traffic and people that the track would bring.
But if either plan is to succeed, local approval will need to be obtained soon. The applications would need to pass through zoning processes, which can take time. The Virginia Racing Commission, which licenses racetracks, requires local government approval before it will grant a license.
Opposition to both tracks centers on the simulcast betting parlors necessary to the tracks' survival. The facilities would allow patrons to bet on races run anywhere in the world and broadcast via satellite to the tracks.
Supervisors and many county residents object to Colonial Downs's proposal because it would offer live races only 10 to 20 days a year. Opponents think the betting parlor would overshadow the track, bringing in undesirable businesses and gambling addicts.
Similar objections have been raised about the Wilson group's plan, although that track would have many more live races.
While the Wilson group already has requested a special use permit from the county, Colonial Downs has not yet applied to Dumfries for zoning permission. At the earliest, the town could hold a public hearing and vote at its regular meeting Sept. 7. Prince William officials were waiting for yesterday's ruling before considering the Wilson group's application.
Yesterday's court decision relieved a number of residents of the Haymarket area who have banded together to defeat Wilson's proposed half-mile "European-style" turf track.
"There's a huge amount of citizens--looks like a very large number--that would prefer not to have a racetrack," said Victor Jaroch, a nine-year resident of the area who has been watching the referendum issue closely. Five homeowners associations in the Haymarket area have come out in protest of the plan.
"The reason we bought into the area was because of the quiet family atmosphere" and the track would disturb that, Jaroch said.
Sid Worley, a Fauquier County resident who grew up in Prince William and helped gather votes in support of the 1994 referendum and a similar measure in 1989, said the Wilson group's proposal could be a positive move toward preserving open space in the county.
Residents "need to consider the alternatives, and the alternatives are that this piece of land isn't going to lay virgin forever," said Worley, who is a horse owner and trainer.
Worley said that the Colonial Downs proposal in Dumfries is unlikely to succeed because steeplechase horses are few and far between in this area and that steeplechase racing is seasonal.
He said Wilson's plan is more viable, because flat, grass tracks are in demand in this area and many owners currently make "a pretty long haul" to race their horses out of the state.
"I am absolutely convinced, with no reservations, that there would be an ample supply of horses for a flat track grass course in Northern Virginia," he said.