The 22.6514-acre parcel impacted by House Bill 2775
By Kellie Patrick Gates
A bill that would repeal the 1907 law that allowed the Philadelphia Commerce Department to grant SugarHouse Casino the right to build on the submerged lands of the Delaware River and render the city-issued license void has passed out of the Pennsylvania House’s State Government Committee.
In August, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the submerged lands license the city issued to SugarHouse during the Street administration is still valid. Attorneys representing City Council and a contingent of state legislators argued that the 1907 law, Act 321, was wiped out by the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act of 1978. Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration drew the same conclusion and revoked the permit shortly after Nutter took office in January. But the court agreed with SugarHouse attorneys that because the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act did not repeal Act 321 by name, it still stood.
The portion of the bill that revokes Act 321 is a direct response to the Court, said Rep. Babette Josephs, prime sponsor and majority chair of the House State Government Committee.
Another part of the bill says that the city-issued permit – which the Court upheld despite the Nutter administration’s attempt to revoke it – is null and void. This would require SugarHouse to go through the legislature to get riparian rights, Josephs said.
It would probably also mean another Supreme Court case, she said.
Tuesday morning, Josephs said she sponsored the bill “because I thought maybe we could right what I consider a wrong.”
A bit of background: SugarHouse needs a submerged lands license, also called a riparian lease, to build its casino complex as planned on the Delaware Avenue site. The power to grant such a license rests with the state legislature, because the riverbed land is owned by the Commonwealth. No legislature was willing to propose legislation granting a license to SugarHouse.
As part of its August decision, the Supreme Court also determined that the city’s notice of revocation was invalid because the city tried to revoke it after the period for SugarHouse to file an appeal had passed and no notice of the revocation was given nor a hearing on the matter held, among other reasons.
Should the newly proposed legislation become law, SugarHouse would have to come to the legislature for a submerged lands license, Joseph said. And the proposed bill uses a definition of riparian land that would make the entire site unusable without such a permit.
But “I’m sure that SugarHouse would be right back in court,” Josephs said.
There’s still a considerable distance to go before any of that could happen.
The bill is now in the house Appropriations Committee. This is a typical last-stop before the House floor, Josephs said, but she does not know when it will land there for a vote. She has sent a letter to appropriations chair, Rep. Dwight Evans, urging him to act quickly. Josephs wants both the house and senate to deal with this matter before the pre-election recess, especially since the Senate plans an extended break, she said.
But as of now, there is no Senate companion to HB 2775. Josephs said she will talk about that – likely this week – with her counterparts in the Senate’s State Government Committee, majority chair Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, who represents Dauphin County and part of York, and minority chair Sen. Anthony Williams.
The bill would also require Gov. Ed Rendell’s signature, and Josephs says she’s not certain he would sign a bill that left SugarHouse without a license.
Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said there’s no way for the governor to know what he’ll do when the bill has so far to go before it could hit his desk. “We can”t speculate on the future of a bill that is still undergoing consideration in the legislature and could change drastically before it reaches its final form.”
SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker had no comment.
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