By Kellie Patrick Gates
On Thursday, SugarHouse Casino operators will ask the Philadelphia Commerce Department to give them the right to build on state-owned land along and beneath the Delaware River.
Riparian land leases are normally granted by the state, via an act of the legislature. But this route has proven rough sailing for SugarHouse. Legislative tradition maintains that only someone representing the district that contains the land can introduce a bill to grant riparian rights. Neither State Sen. Vincent Fumo nor State Rep. Michael O’Brien are willing to do that without consent of the neighborhood associations – and most of the associations are fighting the casinos’ proposed locations.
Last month, SugarHouse attorneys found a 1907 state law that they believe gives them the ability to navigate around the legislature. The law says the city’s Commerce Department has the right to grant riparian rights.
City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. could not be reached for comment today, but he told The Inquirer last month that the old law seemed to apply to the casino.
SugarHouse’s position will not go unchallenged. O’Brien will argue that the law gives the Commerce Department the power to grant riparian rights only for public projects related to water-born commerce, such as a pier, wharf or harbor structure, he said. The casinos have nothing to do with water-born commerce and are private projects, he said.
Some of the land the casino wants to use is dry. Over time, the space between former city piers has been filled in. But O’Brien said the Commerce Department does not have the right to grant the use of the infill to anyone.
O’Brien will also point to a city ordinance, 18-100. “It says you’ve got to go to L&I first and get your permit before you can go to the Commerce Director,” he said. But the city has yet to create a Commercial Entertainment District – a place where zoning would allow casino operation. “L&I can’t issue the permit, because City Council cannot pass the CED, so this hearing is fatally flawed and premature,” O’Brien said.
Attorneys who will make SugarHouse’s case could not be reached for comment, but spokeswoman Leigh Whittaker released this statement:
“Our analysis and the City’s analysis indicate that we meet the requirements under the law,” she wrote in an email. “We are confident that the City has the authority to issue HSP Gaming the license it has requested and we look forward to building a world class facility that includes public access to the waterfront.”
The public hearing is slated for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Convention Center.
Kellie Patrick Gates is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter.