House invokes AG on riparian decision

Dec. 11

Earlier story

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives Tuesday urged the state’s Department of General Services to ask Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett to issue an injunction preventing SugarHouse Casino from building on land beneath the Delaware River.

The legislators, who voted 200-0 in favor of the resolution, originally planned to ask Corbett directly. But when the original legislation was introduced, Corbett’s office told Rep. Mike O’Brien, the bill’s author, that the AG could only act on a request from DGS. So Rep. John Taylor amended the bill accordingly.

In the 200-0 vote, the legislators also asked that Corbett be asked to file an appeal of last month’s Philadelphia Commerce Department decision to grant the rights to a portion of that land – also called riparian land – to SugarHouse.

Rep. Mike O’Brien – the bill’s author – called the Commerce Department’s action a “frontal attack” on state sovereignty.

He and other representatives who took the floor said that these rights can be conferred only by an act of the state legislature, and that allowing the Commerce Department’s decision to stand would have ramifications across the state, since 177 legislative districts contain navigable waterways.

“By doing what they did in Philadelphia they thumbed their noses at the legislature and the process of doing things the right way. They told us all to go to Hell,” said Rep. Thomas Petrone of Allegheny County. “It’s time for all of us to let them know, they’re not going to get away with it.”

SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said the casino had no comment.

Riparian rights leases have historically been granted by the state legislature. And by tradition, only a legislator whose district contains the desired land submits the legislation, but both O’Brien and State Sen. Vincent Fumo pledged not to do that for SugarHouse unless the casino can reach agreements with the neighborhood associations.  One association – Fishtown Action – adamantly supports SugarHouse. But many others, including the Fishtown Neighbors Association – have united against the casino’s proposed location.

But in October, SugarHouse attorneys announced they had found a different route to the rights they say will allow them to build a more attractive casino with more public access to the waterfront: A 1907 law that gives the city Commerce Director the power to grant riparian rights. City Solicitor Diaz agreed with that assessment, and Commerce Director Stephanie Naidoff convened the hearing based on his counsel.

O’Brien, Fumo and Philadelphia City Council have vowed to appeal that decision, saying that the 1907 law applies only to public projects dealing with water-borne commerce, and the casino does not meet that description.  The appeals are expected to be filed within weeks.


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