Palm Coast’s city government is somewhat in fear of two potential problems: pill mills and gambling halls posing as Internet cafés. Neither has been a problem so far. The city wants to keep it that way. But it can’t continue preventing either kind of business from setting up shop locally, as it has been doing through moratoriums on both.
On Tuesday, the Palm Coast City Council decided to stick to moratoriums for now (through December for pain clinics, February for gambling joints), with a welcome-back present to both once the moratoriums are lifted: much stronger land-use regulations applying to the two kinds of businesses. The regulations will regulate the businesses’ locations, time of operation, square footage, signage and even interior décor, among other things, in hopes of limiting the risk of enabling shady operations from taking root. (See the city administration’s presentation to the council below.)
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The city has no pill mills—fly-by-night places posing as pain management clinics that, in reality, are fronts for the crooked dispensing of prescription drugs. Palm Coast has three pain management clinics, but they’re legit. Last spring the Legislature approved some regulations, including the use of a pharmacy-industry-funded database to crack down on prescription-drug abusers and a stepped up registration process for most pain clinics—including registration of pill dispensation. (Certain clinics, such as those licensed through a hospital, are exempt from the registration requirements.)
To prevent fly-by-night clinics that have typically housed so-called pill mills, the law also requires the pain management clinics to have fixed addresses and have the look and feel of medical clinics (publicly listed numbers, reception areas, exam rooms), including physicians’ contact information. Physicians and pharmacies must also comply with a set of requirements. But enforcement, while left up to local policing, is more vague, though this detail is also part of the law: pain clinics where certain forms of lawbreaking such as assault or burglary or theft take place twice in six months may be declared public nuisances and shut down.
Speaking to local officials in a breakfast meeting Monday, Gov. Rick Scott said the measures have drastically cut down on the illegal dispensing of prescription pills in a state that led the nation in the racket—and in deaths from prescription pills.
“So while the existing Florida legislation may not be the ultimate, it has certainly had a major impact,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said. “It was a huge difference, assuming the governor’s statistics are correct.” That’s helped along cities like Palm Coast that imposed moratoriums to give the law time to shake out, and give themselves time to figure out what to do next.
The city could have ended its moratorium now. Instead, it will maintain it until Dec. 31. By then it’ll have a better sense of the new law’s effectiveness—and it’ll have developed its own local ordinance down to limiting hours of operation.
“What is the rationale for limiting hours of operation?” Netts asked the city attorney, William Reischmann. “My understanding,” the attorney said, “is that it’s to try to deal with the secondary negative effects that were associated with the establishment of these fly-by-night businesses that were popping up, that would otherwise hopefully be regulated by what we just talked about, which is these state regulations. What you were having is you were having these businesses operating early in the morning, late at night, a lot of cash, they would have parking issues, they would have noise issues, they would have vagrancy milling around, problems, it was the secondary adverse impacts on the other businesses close to where these were located as well as the community in general.”
Palm Coast has none of those issues, though it’s not yet clear whether the three existing pain clinics would be in compliance with some of the additional regulations the city could write into its land-use regulations. “We don’t want to impact their ability to conduct a legitimate business,” Netts said, “what we’re looking at in my eyes is some proactive action to prevent—unfair competition from the fly-by-nights?” Netts wasn’t sure.
The matter is less clear regarding gambling halls—halls whose owners and operators insist on calling by any name but gambling. The state still doesn’t define them as gambling, but leaves enough room for interpretation. The Attorney General leaves it to local law enforcement to decide how to handle them. Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming doesn’t want to raid them for now, pending more uniform regulations from the state. A bill has been filed again in the Florida House of Representatives to define Internet cafes (or adult arcades) as slot-machine gambling, and regulate or restrict them as such. That same bill was introduced last year and failed.
“It would be senseless for us,” Marc Carman, the sheriff’s office’s Palm Coast captain, “to go out there and use our resources to try and close them down. Our state attorney, their position right now is they’re not going to do anything until they get clear-cut guidance from the attorney general, so they’re not going to prosecute and we’re not going to get a conviction. We’re just going to be spinning our wheels and we’re going to be wasting time and taxpayers’ money.”
“What you don’t want is this hodgepodge across the state of–this city or this county allows them, next door they don’t. That’s absurd,” Netts said. But that’s the state of things in Florida right now. The sheriff in Polk County is closing them down. Some sheriffs elsewhere are allowing them. Seminole County banned them by ordinance, only to be taken to federal court by a group representing veterans. An attempt by that group to stay the ordinance was defeated (in court), but that’s on appeal, though the sheriff there is enforcing the ordinance. “In the long run,” Reischmann told the council, “it could work out so that Seminole County could look like they really were taking a great lead, and it could work. It certainly looks from a preliminary standpoint this circuit judge ultimately may rule in favor of Seminole County. Of course, what’s going to happen then? It’s going to be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. So it’s not like I can tell you, council members, by March or May 2012, we’re going to know what happened in the Seminole County case.”
“The legislature’s got to step up and pass whatever law they’re going to pass before you start getting into enforcing these things,” City Manager Jim Landon said. Landon: “We don’t believe that the legislature is going to do this quickly enough. The fear is that if the moratorium expires, we open the door and you haven’t taken any local action, they will be lining up. So instead of just sitting on our hands and saying OK, let’s take that chance, we’re suggesting meantime we pass local laws that don’t shut down the existing ones, that’s our proposal, because that’s a very slippery slope, but that once the moratorium expires, we try to control them.”
There are 9 such businesses, including a new one near the city’s offices at City Market Place, in Palm Coast. They’re treated as retail establishments. The current moratorium on new such gambling halls expires Nov. 6. It will be extended until Feb. 4, 2012. The council agreed to extend the moratorium at a meeting in October.
Meanwhile, the city administration will work on a proposed ordinance that may follow the Duvall County example and cap the number of establishments—essentially, turning the local government into a back-door enabler of job protecting for those establishments lucky enough to be under the cap. The proposal may also require that gambling joint owners be fingerprinted and submit to background checks, forbid alcohol in their establishments, and submit to software certification procedures to ensure against machine-rigging. The city could also forbid minors (the places already do), require security cameras, regulate signage, limit hours of operation and limit the square footage of the operations and the number of gambling machines they may have. The city could also require a certain distance between gambling establishments, which would in itself possibly limit their numbers, if the radius is large enough.
And the city could zone them out to specific commercial areas. “These entities are a source of amusement for a significant number of our population,” Netts said, “and assuming that we’re going to permit them and assuming that the Legislature allows them to persist, I’m not particularly in favor of having our senior citizens being pushed out” into outlying areas. But that’s what council member Frank Meeker favors. “It’s just another form of adult entertainment,” he said.
The council will, however, consider restricting them to specific commercial locations, such as the area around Palm Coast Parkway and State Road 100, as opposed to more neighborly commercial zones elsewhere.