Council takes another tack on casinos

City Council yesterday continued its efforts to move two planned casinos from their state-approved locations by changing the zoning for one site and creating a committee to study where else they should be built.

Councilman Frank DiCicco proposed both measures, repeatedly referring to the change in zoning from commercial to residential for the Foxwoods Casino site on the Delaware riverfront in South Philly as a delay tactic.

The change means Foxwoods will have to ask Council or the city Zoning Board of Adjustment to return the zoning to commercial before it can be granted building permits for the site.

The measure passed, 14-3, with Council members Juan Ramos, Daniel Savage and Carol Campbell voting against it.

DiCicco admitted the zoning change might be struck down if Foxwoods challenges it in court.

A referendum approved by Council to let voters decide if casinos should be built within 1,500 feet of homes, churches, parks and other public spaces was stripped last week from the May 15 ballot by the state Supreme Court after a legal challenge by the state Gaming Control Board.

"The likelihood is we may lose this as well," DiCicco said of the Foxwoods zoning change. "But I think it's another opportunity to slow this down and to let the Gaming Control Board understand how serious we are and how concerned we are about the negative impacts to these communities."

Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity denounced the Council vote as "blatant spot-zoning, which we believe is illegal and just another delaying tactic to bringing jobs and millions in tax revenues to Philadelphians."

State taxes on gambling would be used to fund the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and cut local wage taxes.

Foxwoods and the SugarHouse Casino, which would be built on the Delaware riverfront in Fishtown, rejected Council's new committee to study other locations.

"We picked the best site in Philadelphia," said Dan Fee, a SugarHouse spokesman. "It sounds like this new proposal is simply a way to recover the ground already covered by the Mayor's Gaming Task Force, and every dollar spent on it is one less dollar that can be spent putting more police on the streets. What a waste!"

Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach said Council could have established a committee to study potential locations in 2005 or 2006 and submitted its finding to the board during last year's public-comment period.

All of the casino locations had been publicly identified in news reports in 2005, and five applications were filed for two licenses in the city by December 2005.

"We're a bit confused why the Council didn't act a year or more ago, after the applications were received and these sites were well-established," Harbach said. "Really, they were asleep at the wheel."

DiCicco, asked yesterday if political support was flagging for his efforts to deal with casinos, conceded that the issue is getting tiring for Council.

"The clock is ticking," he said. "There is the other side making the argument that every day a casino doesn't open that the city is losing millions of dollars in revenue. So there's a lot of pressure." *