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SugarHouse says it's poised to start work

Opponents prepare to protest at the casino site. A high-court ruling could also benefit Foxwoods.

With a state Supreme Court ruling backing its bid to build in Philadelphia, SugarHouse Casino yesterday said it would break ground within three weeks even as casino opponents made plans to "occupy" the project's Delaware Avenue construction site.

The Supreme Court on Monday overrode City Council and granted SugarHouse permission to build its $550 million facility in Fishtown/Northern Liberties, clearing most legal obstacles. Yesterday, SugarHouse announced its intention to complete the project by October 2009.

The ruling may also clear a path for the city's other planned slots parlor, Foxwoods Casino, to build on Columbus Boulevard in the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia.

Foxwoods yesterday asked the Supreme Court for a rehearing on its case seeking to override the city permitting process. That would give Foxwoods the chance to make the same argument SugarHouse did - that Council had intentionally and illegally obstructed the permitting process for its $560 million project, and that Foxwoods should be granted all zoning and building permits required.

Opponents of the casinos have called for city officials to defy the court ruling and refuse to issue permits. Casino-Free Philadelphia, the leading anti-casino group, yesterday announced plans for "emergency action training" today for a practice "site occupation" of the SugarHouse site to be held on Saturday.

"Casino-Free Philadelphia refuses to see this decision as anything but the result of government corruption and expects the city of Philadelphia to refuse to accept this affront on democracy," the group said in a news release.

City Councilman Frank DiCicco obliged yesterday. In a hearing on the joint city-state agreement to run the Convention Center, DiCicco asked Council members to support an amendment to block casino building permits until the state releases $700 million in Convention Center funding.

Refusing to issue building permits to SugarHouse at this point would fly in the face of the court's ruling, all acknowledged.

Richard A. Sprague, part-owner of SugarHouse, yesterday blasted Council and casino opponents for failing to recognize the court's authority.

"When there's a call to absolutely violate and ignore a ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, that is something that is wrong," Sprague said.

Gov. Rendell, at an unrelated news conference, also criticized the tactic.

"Any time you hear rhetoric saying the law should be defied is a matter of concern," said Rendell, the leading proponent of slots gambling in Philadelphia and the state. "The citizens who are talking like that should think about what that does to the overall image of Philadelphia."

Opponents' options are dwindling.

Council has promised to challenge the city's right to grant SugarHouse permission to build on state-owned land beneath the Delaware River. The city Commerce Department based its riparian-rights decision on a 1907 law, which House members said yesterday had since been superseded by other legislation.

SugarHouse officials yesterday said they would begin site work, including demolition of old piers, on all of their parcel.

In Harrisburg, a bipartisan group of House members held a morning news conference to announce they had drafted two resolutions, one calling on Rendell and Attorney General Tom Corbett to block the transfer of the state's submerged land, and the other to set legislative hearings on the matter of awarding those riparian rights.

Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), chairwoman of the House State Government Committee, said she would hold hearings "on the problem of the city usurping our rights."

Neighborhood groups had filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that the state's casino licensing process violated their civil rights. But that lawsuit now appears in jeopardy. All 10 individual plaintiffs have dropped out of the suit, and their lawyers have also asked to withdraw after Sprague threatened to sue them under the state's Dragonetti Act, which allows defendants to seek damages for wrongful use of civil proceedings.

Mary O. Reinhart, a Pennsport resident and vocal casino opponent, said she bowed because she could not risk financial ruin.

"I was very distressed that they would target someone like me," said Reinhart, 63, a retired U.S. Parks Department ranger. "I hated to drop out, but I felt I had to."