University City

New rules for Internet cafes?

MoNique Ashe needed a few minutes at a computer to print her resume before she headed to a job interview Wednesday morning.

She saw a sign advertising Internet access and pulled over at Sugar Creek Business Center, at 2822 W. Sugar Creek Road in Derita.

Once the attendant behind the counter opened the locked door by buzzing her in, he told her she couldn't plug in her thumb drive where her resume was stored.

The University City resident noticed none of the handful of other customers in the room - smoke-scented and lined with tabletop monitors - seemed to be doing office work.

"I looked at the machines, and the machines had games on them," said Ashe, who immediately left for her interview. "It wasn't what it said it was - Internet, faxing and copying."

The legal definition of what goes on inside so-called Internet cafes is a matter of debate.

Some sweepstakes games are legal. Others might cross the line, but state laws have sometimes proved inadequate for allowing police to step in.

With Internet cafes popping up in aging strip malls and other properties around the country, municipalities are finding ways to regulate them.

Concord, Kannapolis and Fayetteville have adopted new zoning rules to limit where these businesses can operate.

Charlotte is considering a similar approach. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department will hold a public workshop Thursday to discuss issues and concerns related to Internet cafes.

"These establishments have been becoming more popular," said Barry Mosley, planning coordinator. "The use is not addressed in the zoning ordinance - the use of Internet sweepstakes or Internet cafes."

City staff counted 69 such businesses operating in Charlotte in May. About 25 are clustered in the western part of the city, but they also turned up in other areas, Mosley said.

N.C. law prohibits use of electronic machines or devices, including video poker or bingo games, for conducting or promoting sweepstakes through "an entertaining display."

Two companies - Hess Technologies Inc. and Sandhill Amusements - challenged the constitutionality of the rules, and some games are now permitted.

The state has filed a notice of appeal and hopes to have a higher court get involved.

The city of Fayetteville, meanwhile, adopted zoning rules in August that prohibit electronic gaming operations within 500 feet of an area zoned for residential use and within 1,000 feet of another electronic gaming operation.

The city of Concord adopted zoning rules for Internet cafes in March 2010, saying the laws for illegal gambling are subject to misinterpretation, "leading to the establishment of businesses containing a mixture of illegal gambling machines and legal electronic gaming machines."

Concord gave business owners 180 days to comply with its new rules, which set separation limits from churches, schools and residential areas.

In more than a year since the city adopted the rules, none of the electronic gaming operations has complied with the new rules.

"We have some that are still operating," said Kevin Ashley, Concord's planning and development manager. "We're still going through the enforcement process."

During the Thursday meeting in Charlotte, the zoning staff plans to recruit volunteers to serve on a citizen advisory group. That group will work with the staff to develop regulations.

With internet cafes already open, the city may have waited too long to act, said Bernie Samonds, president of the Derita-Statesville Road Community Organization.

"Anything that would happen now would be grandfathered in," he said.

Samonds said acceptance of Internet cafes seems to be growing in Derita.

"As a community organization, we would like to see a different type of business locating in the area, something that would promote the community better," he said. "If this is all there is, it still beats looking at an empty building."