What do Sebastian residents think of game rooms? - Valley Morning Star : Local News

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What do Sebastian residents think of game rooms?

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Posted: Monday, August 27, 2018 12:04 pm

By FERNANDO DEL VALLE

Staff Writer

SEBASTIAN — From her front door, Laura Ochoa peaks across her yard at the Silver Star Game Room.

“When it’s next to people’s houses, it doesn’t feel very comfortable, especially at the hours they have it — late night,” Ochoa, a stay-at-home mother raising her baby, said last Wednesday as she stared at the game room on FM 506 near Eighth Street.

“A lot of people come from out of town,” Ochoa said. “You have people walking by here so it doesn’t feel safe. There are some pretty interesting folks — some obviously come intoxicated.”

Along David Ramirez Street, Roy Garcia stopped his motorcycle to check on his 90-year-old father, who lives next to two closed game rooms.

“I’m not against the game rooms,” Garcia said. “I’m against the people.”

At night, Garcia said, game room players have trespassed on his father’s property as they walk from one game room to another.

Garcia blames players for three thefts at his father’s house.

“They’ve made U-turns on my dad’s property,” he said. “People walk in front and back of his property. They’ve knocked on his door several times at night. They’ve thrown quarts of wine and beer on my dad’s property. They even removed two signs — ‘Keep Out’ and ‘No Trespassing.’”

To try to stop residents from complaining, some game room owners have hired his neighbor to cut neighborhood lawns, Garcia said.

“The people with the eight-liners are cleaning the whole neighborhood,” Garcia said with a chuckle.

Residents here have told Sheriff Larry Spence the same stories.

“I heard they’re even buying groceries for some,” Spence said.

Down the street, Valentine Cortez lives about a block away from two closed game rooms along Business 77.

In his car, he worries about hitting players as they walk the streets.

“People are always walking the streets from one to another,” Cortez, a bookkeeper, said. “I see them crossing the street. But you really can’t see them well.”

Now, residents want to know, what’s next?

The question looms over this rural hamlet as a judge mulls the fate of eight-liner arcades that turned this tiny farming community into a gaming mecca about two years ago.

On Thursday, state District Judge Migdalia Lopez is expected to determine whether to allow four game rooms to remain open or side with the tough new Willacy County ordinance that led most of them to shut down.

“It’s a state of frustration and confusion,” Joe Salinas, a resident who works as a radio technical director, said Friday.

“Is she giving game room owners a chance?” Salinas, who has pushed to drive game rooms out of town, asked. “If she does, that opens the door to other game rooms to open and we’d be inundated again.”

Along Sebastian’s narrow streets, many residents have complained the game rooms have disrupted their neighborhoods.

During a hearing last Wednesday, Robert Flores, an attorney representing four game rooms, argued the county failed to notify his clients of any technicalities that may have led to the denial of their permit applications.

Under the ordinance, the game rooms were required to re-apply for permits to operate eight-liner machines.

As part of the ordinance, the Sheriff’s Department reviewed the applications to determine if the game rooms should be allowed to open.

Spence has said his department carefully reviewed the 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.

After the review, the county allowed three game rooms to reopen while denying 11 applications.

Of those 11, six game rooms appealed the county’s decisions.

Under the ordinance, hearing examiner Robert Solis, a retired justice of peace, denied the six appeals.

On Aug. 13, the owners of the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost requested Lopez grant their request for temporary restraining orders.

In response, Lopez ordered a hearing last Wednesday to allow the game rooms to make their case in 197th state District Court.

At the hearing, Flores argued the county shut down the game rooms even though they were operating according to state law.

Meanwhile, the county ordinance’s administrative hearings denied his clients “due process,” Flores told Lopez.

After discussing the case with Flores and county-contracted attorney Ricardo Morado, Lopez ordered an Aug. 30 hearing to consider the “merits” of the case.

How we got here

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

Then in February, county commissioners approved a tough ordinance that shut down about 10 Sebastian game rooms, allowing them to re-apply for permits to operate eight-liner machines.

With the new ordinance, law enforcement has 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 Thursdays 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, and on frontage property with direct access to highways.

Like many residents, Salinas wonders why so many game rooms opened in this rural community just north of the Cameron County line.

“I don’t see why these game rooms don’t go somewhere else,” Salinas said. “They look like they’re desperate to stay in Sebastian.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com

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