WESTBROOK — Just two months after approving a marijuana retail store over the vocal opposition of neighbors, Westbrook is now contending with another controversial and newly-legal industry as a restaurant owner seeks approval for sports betting kiosks.
Like the contentious public hearings on the BUDR marijuana store last year, Westbrook residents filled the Zoning Commission public hearing on Monday night to make clear their opposition to a proposal to install 12 sports betting kiosks at Dead Eye Saloon at 110 Boston Post Road.
Dead Eye Saloon owner Walter Bartkiewcz said he needs the gambling terminals so he can keep his restaurant open year-round in a beach community in the quiet shoreline town, saying there aren’t enough people in the winter to justify staying open.
Bartkiewcz said the terminals would be installed along with TVs on what has been a dance floor in the restaurant, and would let customers bet in the restaurant like they have been able to on their phones since Connecticut legalized sports betting in 2021.
“Any sports game that you can do on your cell phone [you could bet on in the restaurant],” Bartkiewcz told the commission. “The only thing that’s different is that you’re going to be eating and drinking here, you won’t be home in your living room.”
The Westbrook residents who spoke at the hearing on Monday overwhelmingly opposed bringing sports betting into town, raising fears that it would attract crime, raise the risk of addiction, increase traffic and burden Westbrook’s small police force.
Several residents, still angry that the marijuana store was approved, said sports betting was another step in the wrong direction for a town that aims to be a family-friendly beach community — with one resident quipping the town should be re-named “Vicebrook” if it’s approved.
Pat Marcarelli, chair of the Westbrook Council of Beaches, asked how much the town is willing to spend to deal with sports betting – saying the police force of 1.5 full-time officers is already overburdened from dealing with the marijuana store.
“I just want the board to think about this. This is not what Westbrook is about,” Marcarelli said. “We perhaps made a mistake [with marijuana], but let’s not keep continuing to make mistakes.”
Commission Chair Harry Ruppenicker Jr. told local residents that the commission will consider their comments, but that some of their concerns can’t factor into the decision — including predictions of possible crimes or the size of the crowd the restaurant would draw.
“We would all love, because we live in this community, to just sort of go along with what the general feeling is. We’d like to all be popular, too,” Ruppenicker said. “But it’s not good zoning, unfortunately.”
Seeking to address some of the residents’ concerns, Bartkiewcz said the restaurant would not pay out winning bets in cash. Like sports betting on mobile phones, which is handled electronically with the sportsbooks’ apps, kiosks will pay out winning bets directly to the user’s account or card, he said.
“There is absolutely no cash going from hand to hand, except if you buy liquor or food,” Bartkiewcz said.
He said the machines verify users’ ages by scanning their drivers’ licenses, and betting is allowed from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and up to 11 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday by state law. The restaurant will have two people working security, he said.
Westbrook Zoning Officer Steve Hnatuk said that the town’s zoning regulations allow a restaurant to install three “arcade game” machines, and that any more require the commission to approve a special permit. He said the “arcade game” definition – a machine used “indoors for amusement, pleasure, test of skill, competition or sport” – was the closest in the town’s regulations to the betting kiosks.
Bartkiewcz said he couldn’t just install three terminals because Connecticut requires a minimum of 12 to give his restaurant a gaming license. Currently there are six venues with state-licensed sports betting terminals in Connecticut, in addition to the casinos, he said. The state gaming license is contingent on zoning approval, he said.
The commission postponed a vote on the application because Vice Chair Dwayne Xenelis requested a legal review to answer whether the betting kiosks fit the “arcade game” definition, or whether they required a new regulation.