MYRTLE BEACH — Horry County moved closer to formally barring sweepstakes parlors in unincorporated areas last week, at least for now, after the county’s Infrastructure and Regulation committee approved the idea of a one-year moratorium on business permits.
The suggestion now goes to the county’s planning commission for a recommendation, and to the council as an ordinance to approve or reject.
The businesses, which sell phone cards or Internet time, then give users a chance to win prizes. The practice has been declared illegal gambling by various courts and the state attorney general. Other judges, including Georgetown County Chief Magistrate Isaac Pyatt, have ruled the sweepstakes machines legal. As the various rulings and decisions from around the state work their way through the courts, municipalities have been caught in the middle, unsure of how to proceed with the businesses.
“Right now, sweepstakes are illegal, as far as we know, that’s what we’re operating under,” said Janet Carter, county planning director. “If someone comes in to permit a sweepstakes business, we will not permit it.”
Horry County’s proposed moratorium is meant to give the county time to amend its zoning ordinances in case the businesses are legalized by the state.
The county’s worry is that if the businesses do become legal, the county would have to permit them and is not currently prepared for that eventuality. The day after the state acts, Carter explained, 25 companies could come clamoring for permits and the county would have to say yes. The moratorium would allow staff time to develop rules governing where and how sweepstakes businesses could operate.
The suggestion appealed on Thursday to County Council members on the committee and they agreed unanimously to send the proposed moratorium on to the next step toward reality.
“I think the moratorium is a good solution,” said Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf. “And while the moratorium is in place, it gives us time to draft the ordinance.”
Councilman Bob Grabowski agreed. “I like that better than anything else.”
Myrtle Beach offered permits to the businesses until recently, but is now in the process of attempting to revoke those permits. City Council will make a decision on the fate of five sweepstakes parlors at its next meeting March 26.
Both the city and the county are waiting and hoping for clarity from the state level. Legislators are debating a number of bills this year that would either explicitly legalize or ban sweepstakes.
The county may not even need the temporary ban.
State Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach, said he thinks there will be little trouble passing a state bill making it clear that sweepstakes are not allowed under the state’s strict no-gambling rules. There are currently bills to do that moving forward in both houses of the legislature and “the House bill and Senate bill are both moving along well,” Edge said.