Among the items heard by the Paso Robles City Council at its July 1 meeting were two amendment requests from Don Ezzell, owner of the Paso Robles Central Coast Casino (PRCCC). First was a request to amend the city’s zoning code so to allow cardrooms in the manufacturing zoning district. Second was a request to amend the municipal code’s cardroom regulations and increase the amount of tables allowed and betting limits. Both were necessary for Ezzell’s plans to expand the business. The rezoning would allow the cardroom to relocate from its current northern Paso Robles location on Black Oak Drive—where it’s tucked away on a side street—to a more visible location on Ramada Drive, in the northeast quadrant of Highway 101-Highway 46 interchange.
“We’d like to build a first-class facility that we can all be proud of,” Ezzell said.
Addressing potential criticism of the casino, Ezzell’s proposal noted his incident-free record since purchasing the business in 2011, and that the business doesn’t “take,” or, participate in betting.
“The cardroom business need not be judged as slimy or sleazy as in the past. It is primarily a hosting/hospitality business with fewer of the dark elements of other gaming establishments,” Ezzell wrote.
With no major vocal public opposition to date and a previous 7-0 vote of recommendation from the planning commission, the matter seemed rather routine, so much so that Ezzell—who’d already entered into a contract to buy the manufacturing-zoned building—didn’t even get up to speak before the council.
But he may have played his cards wrong.
After a short staff report, the public (and applicant) were invited to speak before the council, and only one person obliged: Adam Firestone, owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Company, located just a bit more than a bottle’s throw from the proposed cardroom location. Firestone opposed the rezoning, saying he and other neighbors along Ramada Drive felt that a cardroom would be inappropriate for the area.
“We just feel that the gateway is negatively impacted from the image that is displayed,” Firestone told the council.
The council followed with a brisk discussion on the item and voted 4-1 to deny the rezoning code amendments, much to the visible surprise and chagrin of Ezzell.
While addressing the council for the next item—in which the council approved raising the amount of tables allowed and betting limits—Ezzell told the council he felt ambushed.
Councilmembers say they simply acted on the belief that such a business wasn’t compatible in a manufacturing zone, and rezoning would be a slippery slope.
“In the long run it turns the area into a sort of hybrid area,” Councilman Steve Martin told New Times. “I thought that the manufacturing zone should be kept as discrete as possible.”
Firestone told New Times that he didn’t think a cardroom would be compatible with progress made in creating “tourist vibrancy” in the area, known as the gateway.
“I’m a believer in zoning,” Firestone said. “You put your entire life’s energy into a community spot; it worries me when zones get modified.”
Councilman Fred Strong, the lone vote against the zoning amendment denial, didn’t see the problem.
“The manufacturing zone is generally the most permissive zone in the city,” Strong told New Times. “To not allow cardrooms in any of the manufacturing areas anywhere in the city, wherever they’re located, didn’t make sense to me.”
As far as “indoor recreation facilities” go, the city’s zoning code is a mixed bag of what is and isn’t permitted: Dance halls, gyms, health spas, and shooting ranges are permitted; pool halls, skating rinks, theaters, bowling alleys, and arcades aren’t. In this case, the council decided not to change cardrooms to a status that would require a conditional-use permit.
A day after the council meeting, Ezzell learned that Firestone signed a formal backup offer on June 19 for the building Ezzell was contracted to purchase.
In response, Ezzell wrote a scathing letter to city officials, accusing Firestone of “inappropriate, unlawful, unethical, and fatally conflicted opposition testimony,” because Firestone spoke without disclosing his interest in the building.
Everything about the letter smells like a legal challenge: Unlike the original zoning amendment proposal, the letter wasn’t written on the PRCCC letterhead; it was written on the letterhead of The General Council Group, Ezzell’s Palm Desert-based legal practice, where as a lawyer Ezzell represents oil and gas companies in California, Colorado, Texas, and Utah.
“We believe the public hearing portion of that discussion was tainted,” Ezell told New Times. “We believe that is unethical, underhanded, and wrong.”
When asked about these accusations, and whether Firestone—who didn’t initially mention he’d made a backup offer—should’ve been more forthcoming, city officials said they considered it separate from the rezoning matter.
“Private business deals between those two people is their business,” Martin said.
Firestone told New Times that his interest centered on zoning, prompting his backup offer in the event that the rezoning wasn’t approved, effectively nullifying the pre-existing contract with the property’s current owners, Gordon and Sheryl Knight of Knight’s Carpet and Flooring. The Knights chose not to comment for this article.
“I felt if we are going to do this … if we’re going to try to keep the zoning here, and this damages one of my neighbors, and they don’t get the deal, I should give them a reasonable alternative,” Firestone said. “I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is.”
Ezzell is requesting that the council condider revisiting the issue.
For now, it’s unclear what form of action Ezzell will take when the dust settles.
Mayor Duane Picanco told New Times in a phone message that while the city attorney has advised councilmembers to no longer comment on the issue, he would say one thing: “To me it was just a gateway issue.”
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay