Supreme Court says no to city

Oct. 7

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court today denied the City’s petition to reconsider an Aug. 22 decision that upheld the granting of a license SugarHouse Casino needs to build its project as planned.

It was the City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department that issued the submerged lands license – also called a riparian lease – late in former Mayor John Street’s administration. Shortly after Mayor Michael Nutter took office, his administration revoked the license, first saying the process was flawed, and then arguing that the City never had the legal right to issue the license in the first place.

In their August decision, a majority of Supreme Court Justices disagreed with attorneys representing the city, City Council and a contingent of state legislators who represent the Philadelphia waterfront, all of whom argued that a 1907 state law that once gave the City the power to grant submerged lands licenses was no longer in effect. The Justices agreed with SugarHouse’s legal team that not only did the city still have the right to grant the permit, but its later revocation was invalid.

Tuesday’s decision means the August ruling still stands and SugarHouse still has a permit to build on the riverbed lands.

SugarHouse officials are pleased.

“We anticipate that the City will abide by this decision and follow its legal obligations to facilitate our project,” said spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker. “We look forward to working with the Mayor, his administration, and our neighbors in Fishtown to build a world-class gaming and entertainment facility that will employ 1,100 people and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the City and the Commonwealth.”

Richard Feder, the City’s chief deputy solicitor for appeals, said the decision was “disappointing.” Feder said he could not comment beyond that, because he had not yet seen the order.

State Rep. Mike O’Brien and Brian Abernathy, spokesman for Councilman Frank DiCicco, said that based on past casino-related decisions, this one did not surprise them.

“That makes us 0-13 in front of the Court,” O’Brien said. “What happens next is that Council sits down and re-evaluates, and the administration re-evaluates, and they decide in the next few days what action to take.” O’Brien said he believes there are further legal options. Abernathy said DiCicco’s office had no further comment.
Although City Council and the contingent of legislators were involved in the original case, the petition to reconsider was filed by the city only.

O’Brien has indicated in the past that he might ask a federal court to review the case because he believes it’s a state sovereignty issue. But Tuesday afternoon, he would not comment on whether he or the group of legislators would take any additional legal steps.

Those legislators, DiCicco and the city administration want neither SugarHouse nor Foxwoods, the other casino planned for the city, to build on their proposed Delaware riverfront sites.

After meeting with Gov. Ed Rendell, Nutter, and some state legislators, Foxwoods decided to investigate a move to The Gallery at Market East. Officials from that casino and from the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which leases The Gallery, last week presented preliminary drawings of what that might look like.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued its decision, the governor wants to hold a similar meeting with SugarHouse, Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said. “He does plan to meet with the parties when all their schedules allow,” Ardo said. Rendell has in the past said there was no point in  meeting with SugarHouse until after the Court ruled on the request to reconsider the riparian rights case, because not until then would all the relevant facts be in place.

SugarHouse officials say they’re happy to meet, but they have no intention of moving.

SugarHouse chief investor Neil Bluhm has told the mayor and other city officials that the casino is working on alternative designs for that might better fit in with the city’s long-range plans for the waterfront.

“It’s too soon to say what, if any, changes can be made to the design,” SugarHouse’s Whitaker said Tuesday. “We’re exploring those options now in an effort to address the mayor’s concerns and move our project forward.”

City Deputy Mayor and planning czar Andy Altman said last week that city officials are happy to talk about alternative designs, but that doesn’t change their position that the casino would be better placed elsewhere.

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