Raucous session on casino approval

Full Council to decide if voters have say

An effort to let voters approve where two casinos should be built in Philadelphia moved closer to reality yesterday when a City Council committee voted to have the full Council decide if the issue should be placed on the May 15 ballot.

While that issue was raucously debated in Council, at least four local groups filed legal appeals yesterday to the Dec. 20 decision by the state Gaming Control Board to license the two casinos on the Delaware riverfront, one in Fishtown, the other in South Philly.

The proposed change to the city's Home Rule Charter and the legal appeals, filed with the state Supreme Court, are for the most part driven by voter anger about the approval process for the casinos.

But both tactics may soon face defeat due to legal flaws in their execution.

The charter change was driven by a petition drive that collected more than 27,000 signatures. But the two casino operators challenged the petitions Thursday in the Court of Common Pleas, saying the signature gathering had been marred by "pervasive fraud."

The Supreme Court last month struck down an Erie group's appeal of a casino license awarded there, noting that the group had not filed a petition to intervene before the Gaming Control Board made its decision and so lacked standing later to appeal.

Three appeals filed yesterday, by Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront (NABR), by a coalition of four riverfront civic associations and by a law firm hired by Council, do not involve such a petition.

The NABR appeal argues that the Gaming Control Board failed to consider the environmental impact of the casinos. An appeal filed by the Queen Village Civic Association, the Pennsport Civic Association, the Society Hill Civic Association and the Whitman Council challenges the methods used by the board. Details of the Council appeal were not available yesterday.

A fourth appeal, filed by the investors from the rejected Riverwalk Casino at Delaware Avenue and Spring Garden Street, appears to have standing because they participated in the licensing process from the start.

The Riverwalk appeal argues in part that the Gaming Control Board had deliberated in private meetings instead of public hearings and had failed to give adequate consideration to the fact that the local minority investors owned "an overwhelming portion" of the controlling stake in the deal.

The proposed charter change debated by Council yesterday would block the construction of a casino in the city within 1,500 feet of any homes, houses of worship, parks or playgrounds.

Janice Woodcock, executive director of the city Planning Commission, told Council members that that would eliminate most areas of the city for casinos, except near the Betsy Ross Bridge, near a Peco Energy transformer station on the lower Schuylkill River, the Tioga Marine Terminal and other active port locations on the south Delaware River.

The audience, packed with longshoremen angry that riverfront casinos might threaten their jobs, booed her testimony and then heckled City Solicitor Romulo Diaz when he told Council members that the power to say where casinos are located rests with the Gaming Control Board.

Diaz warned that banning casinos in large portions of the city was "legally problematic."

The reception got worse when representatives from the two casinos, SugarHouse and Foxwoods, testified against the proposed charter change. The longshoremen stood and turned their backs while some shouted "bull---- and "a-- hole."

Councilman Jim Kenney drew cheers as he declared support for the charter change, adding, "Anything that we can do to throw a roadblock in front of this juggernaut, we're going to do here."

Councilman Frank Rizzo also pushed for a vote, saying, "Sometimes you have to take a shot."

Councilman Frank DiCicco politically pivoted on the crowd, calling for a quick vote so that the longshoremen could head to a waterfront seminar being attended by state legislators. DiCicco and Kenney repeatedly noted that legislators passed the law legalizing casinos and giving power to the Gaming Control Board.

"We're the last line of defense," DiCicco said. "This was dumped on us. We've got to slow this process down." *