City Council has joined a group of state legislators in an attempt to block SugarHouse Casino from building over state-owned land underneath the Delaware River.
Council's petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court mirrors one filed by seven state legislators from Philadelphia on Wednesday - saying Mayor Street's Commerce Department improperly licensed SugarHouse to build on submerged state land.
The petition asks the court to stop SugarHouse immediately from building on the state-owned riverbed and piers, which take up 12 of SugarHouse's 22 acres on Delaware Avenue at Shackamaxon Street on the Fishtown-Northern Liberties border.
SugarHouse has not started construction but says it plans to by mid-January.
Council member Frank DiCicco wants to force SugarHouse to move to a site farther from homes, with the riverbed or riparian rights as leverage. His fellow Council members have deferred to his wishes because the planned casino is in his First Councilmanic District. It's a tradition known as councilmanic prerogative and is rarely violated.
Street and Gov. Rendell want SugarHouse and a second casino, Foxwoods in South Philadelphia, to be built. To that end, on Nov. 27, Commerce Department director Stephanie Naidoff issued SugarHouse a license to build on the riparian lands, citing a 1907 law.
In its petition, Council says that law was superseded by a 1978 law. SugarHouse "is seeking to subvert the laws of Pennsylvania - and the rights of the commonwealth - by seeking the required licensing from the sympathetic, but in this instance powerless, arm of the city - the Commerce Department and the director," the lawsuit states.
"The city cannot license a public entity to build on land owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Council's attorney, James W. Christie, said yesterday.
SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said the 1907 law authorized the city to issue the licenses, and questioned why Council would cede control to the state.
"We are not sure why City Council would want legislators from Erie County to decide what goes on Philadelphia's waterfront," she said, adding that denial of those rights to SugarHouse only threatens public access to the waterfront on the project.
"Under Pennsylvania law, only the owner of land adjacent to riparian lands is allowed to develop that land," she said. "We want to give access to the waterfront where there is none today, and the elected officials apparently want to take it away."
In their separate petition, State Rep. Michael O'Brien, State Sen. Vincent Fumo and five colleagues argue that the rights can only be granted by an act of the legislature, and that allowing the city to issue permits for lands it doesn't own sets a dangerous precedent.
The lawsuit puts the Council and Street administration on opposite sides of previous arguments. Previously, Council tried to invoke its zoning powers to relocate the casinos, whose locations were chosen by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Council members complained when the Supreme Court ruled on several occasions this year that the city had no power over casino sites.
Now Council is arguing that the city should have no power over riparian rights.
On the other side, the Street administration in June argued that Foxwoods could not apply for a city building permit because "it lacks riparian rights for the site and only the General Assembly can grant the rights."
City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said yesterday that the city was not aware of the 1907 law at the time. Diaz said the only real issue before the court now is whether that law was repealed by later law.