Casino opponents to continue protests no matter what

Activists say they will even lie in front of bulldozers if the courts reject an anti-casino referendum.

Opponents will continue their efforts to block casino development in Philadelphia - even it means lying in front of bulldozers in the future - regardless of whether the state Supreme Court permits a May 15 anti-casino referendum, activists said yesterday.

Even as neighbors and activists absorbed the impact of Friday's Supreme Court order temporarily blocking a ballot question that would ban casinos from within 1,500 feet of homes, groups planned other ways to force Foxwoods and SugarHouse to abandon their chosen sites in South Philadelphia and Fishtown.

That includes legal challenges, political action, and nonviolent protests at construction sites, said Daniel Hunter, coordinator for Casino-Free Philadelphia, the leading anti-casino group in the city.

More than 80 residents of Society Hill and other areas are expected to down cocktails tonight at a $250-a-head fund-raiser in support of that effort.

Tomorrow, Casino-Free Philadelphia is expected to hold a rally at City Hall to direct its ire at Supreme Court justices meeting inside.

The organization also seeks City Council approval of a set of restrictive zoning ordinances on casinos.

It said it would train members how to lie in front of bulldozers in peaceful protest to stop construction if necessary.

"The referendum is not the only way to stop casinos from being built on the sites," Hunter said.

The Supreme Court order temporarily blocks the May 15 ballot measure, pending further court consideration of the issue.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board sought the injunction, arguing that any proposed law contradicting its Dec. 20 decision to license Foxwoods and SugarHouse at their chosen sites was illegal. The board said the new law "zones out" casinos from all of the city.

If the justices ultimately agree with that argument, such a decision would not only nullify the referendum but probably would prevent any efforts by the city to stop Foxwoods from being built on Columbus Boulevard and SugarHouse on Delaware Avenue, attorneys say.

"That could end the issue," said Larry Silver, attorney for a group of neighborhood associations and residents opposing the casinos. "But it would be improper to do so."

Justices did not explain their rationale for granting the preliminary injunction, which, though temporary, may indicate eventual success for the Gaming Control Board. In a dissenting statement, Justice Thomas G. Saylor said the decision "will likely have the effect of a final one" for the primary election.

Foxwoods and SugarHouse were chosen over three competitors for the only two Philadelphia licenses to build casinos of up to 5,000 slot machines.

The ruling, because it is not final, throws what was expected to be a well-funded, intense campaign by casinos, their allies and adversaries into suspended animation.

The court did not indicate whether it would make a final decision before May 15, and any ruling is not likely until after legal briefs are filed on April 27.

"It's hard to advocate for something when you don't know whether it's going to be on the ballot," said Brian Abernathy, aide to Councilman Frank DiCicco, the referendum's chief sponsor.

Foxwoods and SugarHouse said their strategies would not change. Both casinos, particularly SugarHouse, have stepped up their public relations campaigns in recent weeks, pointing out that the city was already counting on millions of dollars in expected casino revenue.

"We're still going to be letting people know that a vote for the question in effect bans gaming from the entire city," Foxwoods spokesman John Dorsey said.

Hunter said Casino-Free Philadelphia would still knock on doors, collect names and add to the $40,000 it has raised to date.

"If this does go on the ballot, we want to be prepared with a ground campaign that allows us to discuss the issues and what's at stake," he said.

Matt DeJulio, administrator for the Society Hill Civic Association, said he would have a better idea after tonight's cocktail reception benefiting the No Casinos Near Neighborhoods Fund.

Society Hill Civic and three other neighborhood groups have set a fund-raising goal of $100,000 to pay for litigation, including pending appeals of the gaming board's licensing decision.

Five such appeals have been filed in Philadelphia and are now before the Supreme Court. If any succeed, that would force the Gaming Control Board to reconsider its licensing decisions.

"We're raising quite a lot of money," DeJulio said. "This is going to be a significant effort by not just our community, but by many neighborhoods."


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