Montana: Great Falls City Commission removes extra landscaping requirements for casinos

On November 1, Montana’s Great Falls City Commission adopted Ordinance 3251, which removes special landscaping requirements for casinos and removes distance separation requirements between casinos and other land uses. Owners now only need to meet the distance separation requirements in State Law.

Under the updated code, casinos would be treated the same as any other commercial development and for any new construction, building additions more than 20% of the site, new parking lots, and parking lots over certain percentages would require compliance with the regular landscaping code, according to the commission’s announcement.

Previously, casinos were the only renovation projects that triggered additional landscaping requirements. Now casinos will still be subject to the normal landscaping requirements in the code that apply to other projects, as the change removes the additional landscaping requirements specific to casinos.

According to the City, the ordinance revision was initiated by a local business owner’s application to amend the City’s Land Development Codewho is interested in selling his property at 11th Avenue South to a buyer who seeks to build a casino.

The text amendment is a “significant change in the way gaming land uses would be regulated in the land development code,” according to a City Council report. The amendment was submitted because the staff “has faced great difficulties” in administering the current regulations in the zoning code.

“As a result, the staff is proposing a much simpler approach—one that relies on the zoning districts to control where casinos can be located rather than one that also relies on specific distance requirements and requires property owners to install landscaping well beyond normal code requirements,” the report reads, as reported by The Electric.

The main changes in the updated code include:

  • Eliminating the special landscaping requirements for Type 1 casinos. “This does not eliminate the need to landscape casino developments if such projects involve new construction, building expansions, or additional parking areas. It simply removes the requirement to retrofit landscaping for casinos moving into existing buildings,” according to the report.
  • Eliminating all the various special distance requirements in locating Type I and Type II casinos near churches, schools, parks, playgrounds, and residential zoning districts. “This is not an issue for the applicant’s request but has been an issue that has created challenges for both staffs to administer as well as other property owners wishing to establish casinos,” the commission stated. The state’s distance requirements would remain in effect for anyone seeking a gaming license.

The change also deletes the two casino types and just has one country use as casino in the code that would be permitted in C-2 and C-4 commercial districts; the airport industrial district; and light and heavy industrial districts. Those are the same districts where casinos were previously allowed.

On the surface, the amendment could be viewed as increasing the potential for casino relocation and development in the community. This would likely be a concern for decision-makers and certainly for residents in the community,” the report adds, according to the cited source.

“However, because the State of Montana still restricts casino/bar licensing as well as enforces their own distance requirements, staff believes that both the financial impact and impact to community characteristics associated with the proposed amendment will be limited,” the City Council added.

Commissioners also approved a minor change to make the distinction more clear between casinos and accessory gamingwhich is limited to no more than 500 square feet of space that are clearly accessory to bars, hotels, and restaurants.

The state has capped casino licenses and staff does not anticipate an influx of new casinos as a result of the proposed zoning code change. According to statistics from the Montana Department of Justice, there were 1,381 gambling machines and 85 gambling locations in the city in 2020 generating $5,157,972 in tax revenue.

That’s down from 2010 when there were 1,753 gambling machines and 105 gambling locations in the city, generating $4,771,039 in tax revenue, according to the state justice department.

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