A Philadelphia Regional Port Authority discovery this month of records more than a quarter-century old may help answer a nagging legal question about a riverfront casino.

SugarHouse, the proposed Fishtown casino, and Mayor Nutter's staff had agreed on one thing: Nobody could find records of the city granting a developer a license to build on state-owned riverfront "riparian lands" after 1978.

SugarHouse had told the state Supreme Court in April that the city granted licenses after state law governing riparian lands was changed in 1978 but that the records were lost in a fire.

Nutter's administration told the court that SugarHouse's claim "has no support in the record and, to our knowledge, has no support in fact."

The PRPA decided to play detective earlier this month and quickly solved the mystery.

PRPA chief counsel Greg Iannarelli told the city and SugarHouse in a letter Monday that his agency found "several files and permits to allow encroachment on the waterways of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers issued by the city of Philadelphia."

The PRPA found 15 licenses granted from 1979 to 1982. Iannarelli said the PRPA searched its records after hearing about the riparian-license dispute. The agency wanted to make sure that the Supreme Court had accurate information, he said.

The city Commerce Department, under Mayor John Street, granted SugarHouse a license in November to build on 11 acres of riparian land along the Delaware River. That land makes up half of SugarHouse's 22 acres.

Nutter, after taking office in January, revoked that license, saying that the city had the power to grant licenses for riparian land but that the SugarHouse license was improperly awarded. Nutter's administration later changed its theory, agreeing with a group of state legislators that the city lost the power to grant the licenses after 1978.

Stephen Cozen, an attorney for SugarHouse, said the PRPA discovery "invalidates" that theory.

SugarHouse and the city have been awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court after arguing their cases on April 15.

"While I think, from a legal standpoint, there is more than sufficient law to support our position in any event, this I think is pretty devastating to the city," Cozen said yesterday, adding that the city should advise the court of the discovery, "and the implication of this evidence because of the untrue position that the city took before the court."

Richard Feder, chief deputy city solicitor, said that he was skeptical of Cozen's claims but would reserve comment until someone from his staff could visit the PRPA to review the records.

"It's hard to see how this is going to change anything," Feder said. "But we'll certainly take a look at it."

Christopher Craig, an attorney for state Senate Democrats, who represented Sen. Vince Fumo and other legislators in the case, said that the records found by the PRPA are construction permits that do not grant control of the riparian lands underneath those projects.

"There's nothing in there to suggest that it conveys any land or any right to be on land." Craig said, noting that it has been 26 years since the last license was granted. *