Top cops to regulate Willacy’s game rooms

RAYMONDVILLE — The county has two top cops overseeing its new game room permitting process.

And it’s having an impact.

While Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence reviews applications, former longtime Justice of the Peace Richard Solis will be presiding over applicants’ appeal hearings.

Yesterday, county commissioners selected Solis to serve as its new hearing examiner, charged with reviewing permit application denials, permit suspensions and revocations.

The assignments are part of a tough new ordinance that regulates game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Since commissioners approved the ordinance in February, the law has nearly wiped out the throng of game rooms that swelled across Sebastian’s narrow streets for about two years.

So far, Spence and his department have approved two applications — one for an eight-liner arcade in Sebastian and the other for a game room in Lasara.

Meanwhile, his office has denied permits to about 11 applicants.

“We’ve been checking if they’ve had (code) inspections, if they’ve got criminal histories, who their employees are going to be and whether they have criminal histories, who manages it and who the actual owner is,” Spence said. “If they left anything out or didn’t complete (the application), they’re automatically disqualified.”

For three months, Spence has reviewed applications to determine whether the county should grant permits to operate eight-liner arcades.

“It’s been time-consuming,” Spence said yesterday. “It’s legwork — checking places, following up on applications that come in.”

The ordinance required Sebastian’s eight game rooms to re-apply for their permits while others applied for new permits.

Now, about seven applicants have filed appeals for hearings after their applications were denied.

Soon, they will appear before Solis, who will determine whether they have grounds for their appeal.

Yesterday, Solis, who retired in 2009 after 16 years on the job, could not be reached for comment.

But Spence said the new hearing examiner will serve as a type of “mediator.”

“It’s to look at the applications and see if there’s a justifiable reason (to overturn denials) or there’s something they can do to correct (deficiencies), Spence said.

How we got here

For years, many residents called for an ordinance to control the spread of eight-liner arcades across the rural county’s unincorporated areas.

Then in February, commissioners worked with District Attorney Annette Hinojosa to draft the new ordinance.

The ordinance gives law enforcement the authority to inspect game rooms for violations.

Under the ordinance, game rooms cited for violations will be required to shut down.

Spence said even building code violations might be enough to force some to close.

Under the ordinance, game rooms face $10,000 fines for each violation.

The ordinance requires game rooms to limit operations between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Sunday mornings.

Meanwhile, the ordinance requires new eight-liner arcades to be located at least 5,000 feet from other game rooms, on frontage property with direct access to highways.

More Information

What’s going on?

– Two applications approved

– 11 applications denied

– Seven denials appealed

Where are the new game rooms?

– One in Sebastian

– One in Lasara