Fort Worth

Judge issues ruling on Fort Worth’s attempt to regulate game rooms

A state judge in Tarrant County says Fort Worth can’t restrict game rooms to industrial zoned areas of the city.
A state judge in Tarrant County says Fort Worth can’t restrict game rooms to industrial zoned areas of the city. Star-Telegram archives

More than two years after Fort Worth adopted ordinances to restrict game room operations to industrial areas, a state district judge has ruled the city can’t do that.

But in a decision handed down last month, state District Judge Melody Wilkinson did rule that the city can enforce licensing of game room businesses, something operators plan to appeal.

“We think there’s a state statute that says the city can’t do that,” said Anatole Barnstone, an Austin lawyer who represents some Fort Worth game room owners.

Barnstone said the recent court ruling opens up a lot more of the city to game rooms.

Because of the split ruling, lawyers for both the city and the game room operators say they will appeal to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. In August, the same court declined to hear an appeal in the case stemming from a July 2016 state court ruling.

In 2015, several game room operators sued the city after the City Council adopted license and zoning ordinances with stiff restrictions in an effort to curb gambling, crime and the ill effects game rooms have on neighborhoods. Fort Worth says it should be allowed to regulate game rooms because it is a home-rule municipality.

At that time, Wilkinson issued a restraining order barring the city from enforcing the ordinances until the case was completed. That will continue through the appeals process.

Before the ordinances were passed, game rooms were largely unregulated by the city.

The lawsuits didn’t stop the city from enforcing state criminal statutes on gambling. The ordinances focused on the operation of eight-liner and similar coin-operated electronic gaming machines, making it unlawful to have them in areas throughout the city.

Last month’s ruling also stopped the city from prohibiting game rooms within 1,000 feet of a church, a school, a residential neighborhood, a hospital or another game room. And the city will have to allow more than one game room in a building or strip shopping center.

State law restricts game rooms within 300 feet of a church, a school or a hospital.

“That was decided a long time ago,” Barnstone said of the distance requirement.

Wilkinson let stand provisions of the ordinance that say game room entrances must be marked as such, that at least one unobstructed window is required with a view of all the machines, and that owners must provide parking, have fewer than 30 machines on the premises and apply for a permit.

Wilkinson also ruled that each side will be responsible for its own lawyer fees. So far, the City Council has approved spending $200,000 on an outside law firm to help defend the suits.