Willacy game rooms reopen

SEBASTIAN — Game rooms are back, and the owners are taking their cases to court.

SEBASTIAN — Game rooms are back, and the owners are taking their cases to court.

State District Judge Migdalia Lopez is allowing four game rooms to reopen in Sebastian after owners filed requests for temporary restraining orders Monday.

Lopez ordered an Aug. 22 hearing to allow the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost to make their cases in court.

“The court finds there is evidence that harm is imminent to plaintiffs and if the court does not issue the temporary restraining order plaintiffs will be irreparably harmed,” Lopez wrote in her order.

Across this farming community, Joe Salinas and other residents are stunned.

“They’re basically in our neighborhoods,” said Salinas, a radio technical director, on Tuesday of the eight-liner arcades. “There’s the potential of crime.”

In February, Willacy County commissioners approved a tough ordinance that shut down about 10 game rooms in Sebastian, allowing them to reapply for permits to operate eight-liner machines.

The Willacy County Sheriff’s Department reviewed the applications to determine if the game rooms should be allowed to open.

After the review, the county allowed three game rooms to reopen and denied 11 applications. Of those 11, six game rooms appealed the county’s decisions.

However, a hearing examiner denied the six appeals.

“We were doing so well for a couple of months when they were closed down,” Salinas said. “Most of us thought they moved out of town. Then last Thursday we drive in and they’re open again.”

The game rooms, represented by attorney Robert Flores, argue the new ordinance’s grandfather clause allowed them to reopen.

“Plaintiffs made all their potential information available to the public and law enforcement and all redemption machines were compliant with state law,” the game rooms argued in their requests for a temporary restraining order. “Plaintiffs received no notice of any kind of the technical deficiency in their application as required under the ordinance.”

However, Sheriff Larry Spence said his department carefully reviewed the game rooms’ applications to reopen. Factors leading to denials include game rooms’ code violations, any owners’ or employees’ criminal histories, and failure to properly complete the applications, Spence said.

“We took this and ran with it, and thought we did a great job,” Spence said. “Now we’re left holding the bag.”

District Attorney Annette Hinojosa, who helped draft the ordinance, did not respond to messages requesting comment.

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

The law 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 to between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Sunday mornings.

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

Now, Salinas and other residents are waiting for the Aug. 22 hearing.

“There are a lot of questions,” Salinas said. “We’re putting our faith in the legal system.”