Is there a difference between “amusement” and “recreation?” And what constitutes “passive” and “active” uses?
The Horsham Zoning Hearing Board will weigh in with its opinion on these definitions related to whether an is permitted to locate at the shuttered Walmart, 200 Blair Mill Road, in the largely vacant Village Mall shopping center.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, the board heard back and forth testimony from individuals representing the proposed Speed Raceway franchise, as well as township officials who, in within the strip mall, argued that racing is a “recreation” and “active” use and therefore not permitted.
Township attorney Peter Nelson said the use, as proposed, is allowed in other districts. Nelson said the term recreation is differentiated by the fact that patrons of the speedway would be “participating in the use,” as opposed to “sitting there watching” as is the case with movie theaters, which he described as passive forms of amusement.
Provided they meet the height requirement, kids as young as 7 years old could drive the smaller of two types of cars, which travel at a speed up to 25 miles per hour, according to Travis Thompson, one of five partners involved in the project. The larger cars, geared for people from about age 13 and up, travel at up to 50 miles per hour, he said.
Officials inquired about the hazards of having a 7-year-old drive a car and how many injuries have resulted in other facilities. Thompson said he was not aware of injuries and said a “road master” watches the races and is able to stop them immediately if problems arise.
“He hits the remote,” Thompson said. “All the cars shut off.”
The two one-quarter mile tracks and average 10-minute races are intended for “speed-centric” birthday parties and corporate events, Thompson said.
And, since the vehicles do not use gas, Thompson said there are “zero” emissions or odors, and, with the exception of the racing sound added for effect, the facilities are quiet.
“This is a use that is low impact,” he said. “The neighbors won’t know it’s there.”
Speed Raceway attorney Robert Brandt challenged the fact that the roughly 30,00 square feet of coin-operated machines that would comprise part of the facility are permitted under the zoning.
“When operating an amusement machine you need activity,” Brandt said, gesturing. “You need to move your hands.”
Brandt also took issue with township manager and zoning officer Bill Walker’s admission that “between the last council meeting and tonight’s hearing” is when he delineated between the terms recreation and amusement. Brandt said those references were not included in the township’s May 1 denial letter, nor were they referenced – at least publicly - prior to Tuesday’s hearing.
Brandt suggested that the definitions followed the township council’s 4-1 vote to oppose the application during its June 27 meeting.
Walker said after Tuesday’s meeting that that was not the case.
“At that time, we probably didn’t have it broken down that much in detail,” Walker said.
Similar to other facilities like the Horsham Athletic Club, , dance clubs and fitness facilities, Walker said Speed Raceway would be permitted to operate in Horsham’s industrial or general commercial districts.
The shopping center, which officials have said began emptying out following Walmart’s departure about five years ago, may be on the verge of a comeback, Walker said. The plaza’s owner, Hampa Realty, has received preliminary approval from the planning commission to add two new satellite stores in the center’s general vicinity and two add-ons beside Acme, the site’s anchor, he said. Before moving forward, the owner would need final approval from the planning commission and two rounds of approvals from the township council.
Walker said he did not know how much, if any, of the proposed upgrades were being driven by the plans to pump $1.5 million into the old Walmart.
A man who said he’s lived near the shopping center prior to its establishment in the early 1970s, told the board Tuesday that the indoor racing facility was a good idea.
“I’ve seen a lot of things come and go,” he said, adding that one of the things to go was a movie theater. “There have been amusements in that shopping center at one time or another.”
Walker agreed that yes, there have been amusements.
“There has been, to us, no recreation use of that site,” Walker said.
The zoning hearing board has 45 days to render its decision, although the board said it would likely do so at its Aug. 9 meeting. Either side could appeal that decision.