Court ruling paves way for extended poker operations in current sites

THE Superior Court has struck down the zoning board’s decision to deny an application for extension of poker machine operations in Fina Sisu and Kagman.

Saipan Local Law 18-5, or the Saipan Adult Machine Business Zoning Law of 2013, requires poker parlors to move out of residential areas and relocate to a designated zone.

Sin Ho Nam, Winnerslife Inc., and Dan Bi Choi LLC sued former zoning board chair Diego C. Blanco, the zoning board, the CNMI government, and former Finance Secretary Larissa Larson to stop them from enforcing the zoning law.

Nam, Winnerslife and Dan Bi Choi, through attorney Robert T. Torres, asked the court to declare that enforcing the zoning law will deprive them of legally protected interests.

Christopher Timmons, chief of the Office of the Attorney General Civil Division, served as counsel for the CNMI government, Blanco, the zoning board, and Larson.

Last week, Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho granted Nam, Winnerslife and Dan Bi Choi’s motion for preliminary injunction.

In a 116-page order, he allowed Winnerslife and Dan Bi Choi Inc. to operate their businesses at their Kagman and Fina Sisu locations during the pendency of the case as long as they comply with all the other laws.

Judge Camacho also ordered Winnerslife to inform the court if it finds an alternative location for its use of its 19 licensed poker machines. Nam, Winnerslife and Dan Bi Choi will not be required to pay a security bond, the judge added.

But the preliminary injunction does not prohibit Blanco or the subsequent chairman, the zoning board, the government, Larson or the subsequent Finance secretary, from pursuing their counterclaims, the judge said.

He added that the impact of an injunction on public interest tips in favor of granting an injunction because of the potential permanent loss of license revenue and the interest in ensuring that the zoning board follows the law before taking property without compensation.

Judge Camacho said Nam “is threatened with irreparable harm to his immigration status while Winnerslife is threatened with irreparable harm to its business opportunities and its idled workforce.”

The judge said a review of evidence indicated that the zoning board’s decision to deny the plaintiffs’ request for additional time to relocate was the result of an ad hoc process hastily arranged by the board after making an exhaustive argument before the federal district court, rather than the result of a thorough implementation of the Saipan zoning law.

The district court earlier dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit “as not being ripe due to the threat of enforcement being too vague and uncertain.”

The zoning board, the judge said, did not decide what the “fatal” date was pertaining to an extension application until well after that date had passed.

The judge said the zoning board believed that the “fatal” date was “truly fatal” to the plaintiffs’ attempt to receive an extension, and so there was nothing further to discuss.

The judge believes that either the district court or the Superior Court could have taken up the sole question of interpreting the language of the Saipan zoning law on extension application to determine what the “fatal” date is for an extension request.

Had the plaintiffs been properly informed about the requirement for compliance, the judge said, “they may have been able to move their gambling machine businesses to a compliant area. If not, they may have been able to properly apply for an extension utilizing a process set up in advance by the zoning board.”

In a separate 61-page order, Judge Camacho denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge ruled that Nam meets the requirements to seek judicial review of the zoning board order.