After receiving unanimous approval from the Paso Robles Planning Commission to allow his card room to move to a larger, more prominent location just off Highway 101, Rob Ezzell was confident that the City Council would back up its advisory board’s recommendation.
So confident, in fact, that Ezzell didn’t stand up to speak during public comment as the council considered his family’s request to allow card rooms in the manufacturing zoning district at the southern end of town.
But after hearing comments from one nearby business owner — Firestone Walker Brewing Co. co-founder Adam Firestone — the council held a brief discussion and then voted 4-1 to deny a zoning amendment. Councilman Fred Strong dissented.
“We didn’t think we had to say anything,” Ezzell said this week. “We were kind of thrown by it.”
Now, Ezzell, who operates Paso Robles Central Coast Casino with his wife (his brother owns the business), are asking the council to set aside Firestone’s testimony and reconsider its action.
The Ezzells are particularly upset that Firestone didn’t disclose to the council that he had submitted a backup offer to purchase the same Ramada Drive property that they are currently in escrow to buy for the card room.
In his comments to the council on July 1, Firestone said he believed the card room was an inappropriate business for the location and was concerned that allowing it to open would mar one of the city’s “gateways.”
“It sets the tone for so many that come and visit the city,” he said. “We just think that the gateway is negatively impacted by this being so prominently displayed.”
The card room currently operates at 1124 Black Oak Drive north of the Paso Robles Event Center in a 1,000-square-foot portion of a building that used to be a Pizza Hut.
The Ezzell family bought the business about three years ago and has a good track record — even Councilman Strong noted that “this has been a great operator.”
Ezzell said the family had entered into a contract to buy the building at 1649 Ramada Drive for $1.22 million from Gordon and Sheryl Knight, who currently own Knight's Carpet & Interiors at that location.
Ezzell said they planned to remodel the 5,200-square-foot building to include a dining area and sports bar as well as the card room. But first, they needed City Council approval of a zoning code amendment to allow card rooms in the manufacturing district.
Current zoning rules allow dance halls, gyms, racquetball courts and shooting ranges in that district. Strong called the zoning change pretty mild, and added: “I don’t see it as something objectionable to the entryway of the city.”
His fellow council members disagreed.
“I think it does send more of a negative opinion to people coming into town (and) seeing card rooms alongside the highway,” Councilman John Hamon said.
The day after the council’s action, the Ezzells learned that Firestone had submitted a backup offer on June 19 of $1.2 million for the Knights’ property.
Card room owner Don Ezzell, a Palm Desert-based attorney, shot off a letter to council members, stating that Firestone’s comments were “driven by an undisclosed ulterior motive” that caused an impact that was “inappropriate, unethical and unlawful.”
In response to questions about the offer, Christopher Weir, a spokesman for Firestone Walker Brewing Co., said in an email: “In the event that Firestone Walker’s opposition to a zoning change impacted the Knights’ opportunity to sell their property, they wanted to provide their neighbor a reasonable alternative.”
He said there’s no present plan for the Knights’ property should the brewery acquire it.
Several other property owners in that area also objected to the zoning change, said Susan Claassen Borene, who owns Trailer Barn and is president of the River Park West Property Owners Association.
“We all work hard to keep our properties beautiful because we are the south entrance to Paso Robles,” she said. Businesses in the area — which include specialty tubing, welding services, industrial packaged gases, and Firestone Walker — complement each other, she said.
“We have had trouble with theft in our area,” Claassen Borene said. “We’re not looking for anything to bring more attention to our street during the late hours.”
The card room’s future now remains up in the air, as the purchase of the Knights’ property was contingent on getting the necessary approvals and permits from the city.
Rob Ezzell said Thursday he doesn’t harbor any animosity toward the city or the council. “If we have any hard feelings, it’s for the person who wronged us,” he said.