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Willacy puts brakes on 8-liners

December 15, 2017 GMT

RAYMONDVILLE — For 30 days, no new eight-liner arcades will open in rural Willacy County.

Citing safety concerns, county commissioners yesterday unanimously voted to order a 30-day moratorium on the issuance of game room building permits in the county’s unincorporated areas.

The moratorium gives the county 30 days “to address issues related to public safety and public hazards,” commissioners said after meeting in closed session with District Attorney Annette Hinojosa.

Commissioners withheld details.

However, residents had presented commissioners with concerns surrounding the growing number of eight-liner arcades in Sebastian, where 10 game rooms operate along the neighborhood streets, with one popping open a few feet from a new home.

Just north in Lyford, four game rooms continue to operate in the city whose ordinance limits their number to five.

In Sebastian, residents have expressed concerns about possible building code violations, including possible lack of fire exits, traffic, glaring lighting and late-night operations.

During the meeting’s public comment period, resident Joe Bridgeman told commissioners a game room opened next to his home, which has become surrounded by traffic, litter and noise.

“This is just one step in the right direction,” resident Stanley Gonzales said after the meeting, referring to commissioners’ decision to order the moratorium.

For about two years, eight-liner arcades have been opening in the county’s unincorporated areas such as Sebastian, where the county has no ordinance to regulate game rooms, Gonzales said.

“I hope they’re finally trying to address (the concerns) because all that has been there since the beginning,” Gonzales said.

Big trouble

Residents are also concerned game rooms could bring crime into their community.

“It brings a criminal element you can’t control,” Gonzales said.

Last month in Edinburg, a game room’s security guard shot and killed two men who apparently planned to rob the business.

In Sebastian, gunfire has broken out in the street.

Last November, authorities arrested three Brownsville men after they allegedly tried to rob Sebastian’s Silver Outpost amid gunfire.

Now, residents are complaining game rooms are overrunning the tiny rural community.

“It’s a good thing to keep them from building right now,” said Sheriff Larry Spence, who said the number of game rooms has reached an all-time high in the county. “But you still got the ones there in operation.”

For years, Spence has called on commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating eight-liner arcades.

Voicing concerns

In July, commissioners held a town hall meeting in which Gonzales called on commissioners to consider approving an ordinance based on a law the state Legislature drafted specifically for Willacy and Harris counties in 2014.

Law changes

The law would allow the county to cite illegal game room owners and their employees with fines of up to $10,000 per violation.

It would also require distances between game rooms, neighborhoods, schools and churches; prohibit tinted windows and require signs clearly identifying the businesses as game rooms.

In 2014, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved the law known as House Bill 2123.

But before an audience with ties to game rooms, Willacy County’s previous commission scrapped the law that then-County Judge John F. Gonzales Jr. tried to turn into a county ordinance.

Three months after commissioners scrapped the bill, a game room opened in Raymondville Plaza.

Soon, eight-liner arcades began popping up across Raymondville.

In response, Raymondville city commissioners approved a tough ordinance pushing most game rooms out of town.

That’s when eight-liner arcades began popping up in Sebastian.

Now, about 10 eight-liner arcades are operating there.

Spence said he could not disclose whether authorities have launched an investigation to determine whether the game rooms are paying out cash.