The Lufkin City Council unanimously passed a zoning ordinance Oct. 18 targeting game rooms in the city. Five weeks earlier, Lufkin Police Department seized illegal game machines from six different for-cash locations.
While game rooms are permitted under the Texas Local Government Code, they cannot give out cash prizes greater than $5. This legal distinction is meant to classify them as “entertainment venues” and not “gambling venues.” Texas casinos and other forms of gambling are currently illegal under the state Constitution and could only be legalized through a constitutional amendment.
‘Fuzzy animal’ argument no longer works
The seized machines, eight-liner slots, sit at the center of a controversy in Texas. Operators contend they exist in a legal gray area. They point to a Texas penal code dubbed the “fuzzy animal” exception. Gaming devices that award prizes, like stuffed animals, are allowed under the law.
In April, the Second Court of Appeals ruled that eight-liners do not fall under that clause. The court said the machines are lotteries and thus illegal.
While the Appeals Court ruling has empowered some law enforcement officers, others are waiting for this ruling to reach the Texas Supreme Court before taking action.
Many game rooms have opened in the last year
Lufkin Communication Director Jessica Pebsworth said city leaders agreed that the city’s ordinances on game rooms with eight-liners were hazy.
“Previously, our city ordinance did not specifically address game rooms or their activity. They’ve become more prevalent in the last several years. So, many municipalities like ours have had to make modifications to our ordinances in order to address those issues.”
Because most cities and towns in Texas do not have ordinances regulating game rooms offering eight-liners, they are thriving across the state. Many of them have set up shop within the past year. That includes in Lufkin, Pebsworth said.
“Several of them opened during the summer months and they were pretty quickly problematic.”
Police records show that law enforcement responded to 132 calls at game rooms in the last 10 months in Lufkin. The locations have become magnets for criminal activity.
Along with an armed robbery at one game room, police officers have responded to illegal drug activity, fights in progress, stolen vehicles, theft, burglary, assaults, terror threats and criminal mischief.
Some game rooms are legal
There are some game rooms that aren’t breaking the law by playing for cash. They, according to Pebsworth, won’t have to worry about getting shut down under the new ordinance.
“It will specifically address the for-cash establishments because there is a difference between recreation versus for-cash.”
Still, the city will keep a close eye on legal game rooms through its ordinance. It limits the areas these game rooms will be allowed to operate in. Also, special permits are now required, Pebsworth said.
“We have to make sure they’re regulating within the regulations of our ordinance and they’re meeting all of those requirements in order to operate.”
Ordinance limits hours of operation
The zoning ordinance states that game rooms could be permitted under a special-use permit in light and heavy manufacturing zoning under the following terms:
- All game rooms shall be limited to hours of operation between 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Game rooms must not be located within 300 feet of a residential use or residential district or within 300 feet of a church, synagogue, mosques, or other houses of worship, school, daycare, or hospital, or within 2,000 feet of another game room.
- Doors must remain unlocked during hours of operation.
City Planner Scott Rayburn recognizes that city ordinances had in the past not addressed the issue of game rooms in Lufkin. And with the rising trend in game rooms across the state, there now is an urgent need to provide effective legislation.
“Cities and counties throughout Texas have had a substantial increase in game rooms in the last few years. Along with this increase has come an increase in crime and citizen complaints. There has been a fine line between the use of game rooms strictly for recreation and the use of game rooms for gambling.”