A vote on Phila. casinos is likely

A plan from slots-parlor foes to add a referendum to the May ballot was passed by a City Council committee.

Philadelphia's casino foes scored their most striking victory to date yesterday as a City Council committee backed their plan to let voters decide whether to allow casinos near residential areas.

In a whirlwind day of legislative action and court challenges - and a refusal by the Philadelphia court system to hear a critical casino case - anti-casino activists gained a crucial foothold.

In a 6-0 vote after a raucous public hearing, the Council committee approved a proposal to put a referendum question on the May primary ballot asking to change zoning laws to push casinos off the riverfront near Center City. It now is likely to be voted on by the full Council by March 15.

"We're just going to give people a chance to have a vote," Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. said during the hearing.

Council was required by law to consider the referendum proposal because supporters collected more than 20,000 signatures endorsing the ballot measure to have casinos restricted from being built within 1,500 feet of any home, school or house of worship.

Its implementation would void the Dec. 20 decision of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to license SugarHouse Casino in Fishtown and Foxwoods Casino in South Philadelphia, whose neighbors across Delaware Avenue or Columbus Boulevard fall within the 1,500-foot circle.

The representatives from SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos might have been treated better had they just been people wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys to the meeting of Council's law and government committee. About 150 neighborhood residents, anti-gambling activists and longshoremen stood up and turned their backs when the representatives spoke, and often drowned out their testimony with mass coughing and general booing.

"These bills are really nothing more than an attempt to exclude gaming from the city of Philadelphia," testified Foxwoods attorney William Schwartz.

"That's right," answered a person in the audience.

Importantly, the committee's vote and statements by other council members indicate that at least eight of nine members would vote to put the question on the May 15 primary ballot.

In addition to the six votes yesterday, Councilman Frank DiCicco, the chief backer of anti-casino legislation, supports the measure, and Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell, a committee member who was absent yesterday, said later that she supported it.

Committee members said they were willing to let voters decide even as City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. warned that any attempt to override the Gaming Control Board would likely fail in court.

Diaz and others contended that even if the question were approved by voters, it would only have the effect of delaying two casinos because the state, not the city, has authority to choose slots locations.

Councilman James Kenney said he would take his chances.

"Anything we can do to throw a roadblock or speedbump in the way of this juggernaut, we're going to do here," Kenney said. "Whether the Supreme Court lets us do it remains to be seen."

The Supreme Court is the arbiter of disputes over slots laws, and yesterday at least four Philadelphia-based appeals had been filed to protest the Gaming Control Board's licensing decision. The deadline for the appeals is Monday.

The appeals came from Riverwalk Casino, one of three applicants that lost out to SugarHouse and Foxwoods for one of the two licenses reserved for Philadelphia; City Council; neighbors of the Foxwoods site; and Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront (NABR), a group that has opposed the casino licensing process for the last year.

Attorney Paul Boni, who filed the appeal on behalf of NABR, said the board did not properly weigh the benefits of the casinos against its environmental costs.

"A lot of us feel that the social and economic benefit . . . comes out to be a negative," Boni said yesterday.

The law governing appeals sets a high standard, requiring parties to prove that the Gaming Control Board committed legal errors or "capriciously disregarded the evidence," said Christopher Craig, chief counsel to Sen. Vincent Fumo (D., Phila.) and one of the authors of the 2004 slots law that authorized 14 slot-machine facilities in the state.

Craig pointed to a recent decision in which the state Supreme Court shot down an appeal in Erie because the plaintiffs hadn't formally intervened in the licensing proceedings previously.

That suggests that no one, excepting unsuccessful casino applicants and one group in Bethlehem that did try to intervene, has the standing to appeal, Craig said.

"They will have an uphill battle to demonstrate that the board showed a capricious disregard of the evidence in this case," Craig said.

The courts will also be critical to the success of the ballot initiative. SugarHouse filed suit in Common Pleas Court Thursday contending there are widespread flaws in the petitions and arguing that only 25 percent of signatures could be valid.

The court is directed by statute to give such an action first priority and decide within 15 days.

But yesterday, President Judge C. Darnell Jones II asked the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to have an out-of-county judge handle the case because it will require a "significant time commitment." He also that some judges lived near the proposed sites, and cited potential conflicts between judges and investors and attorneys.

"Last, I felt that given the alleged 'political' nature of the issues, the fact that it is an election and retention year for judges, the integrity and fairness of the judicial process will not be an issue," Jones said in a statement. "Based upon the totality of those considerations, it was clearly the appropriate decision."

It was unclear last night what impact Jones' decision would have on the timing of the case.

Two other appeals were filed yesterday by unsuccessful applicants for the single license in Pittsburgh, Forest City Enterprises Inc. and Isle of Capri Casinos Inc.

To read the slots appeals, go to http://go.philly.com/slots.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.