By Matt Blanchard
A zoning bill needed for Sugarhouse Casino to begin construction was quietly introduced in City Council on Thursday by Councilman Juan F. Ramos.
Not listed on Council's website nor the agenda provided in council chambers, the bill is another small step forward for Sugarhouse, the controversial casino slated for a 22-acre site on the Fishtown waterfront.
The bill is also a rare breach of "councilmanic privilege," the traditional right of district council members to control any development-related legislation affecting their district. In this case, Ramos, an outgoing at-large councilman, reached into the territory of First District Councilman Frank DiCicco, who has lately offered vigorous opposition to casinos.
"We're disappointed," said DiCicco spokesman Brian Abernathy. In recent months, DiCicco has introduced no less than eight of his own bills seeking by various strategies to force the casinos off their current locations. "Without those processes completed, we think [Ramos' bill] is a little bit premature," Abernathy said.
Ramos is among those "lame duck" council members who lost the May 15 Democratic primary and will not be returning to council. Calls to the councilman's office have not been returned.
Fishtown anti-casino activist Ed Varrell accused Ramos of using his lame duck status as a license to defy the public will. "It took somebody on council like him, somebody who's got nothing to lose, to push this through for Sugarhouse," Varrell said.
Sugarhouse spokeman Dan Fee had a different explanation.
"People are finally beginning to realize that every day of delay is another day that we're not creating 1000 new jobs and we're not generating new tax revenue," Fee said. "We need to begin to make progress to create new jobs, generate tax revenue for our schools and to put more police on the street."
The Ramos bill calls for the Sugarhouse site to be rezoned to "Commercial Entertainment District," a new category tailor-made to accommodate waterfront casinos. It must pass both a first and second reading, and will likely be the subject of a public hearing. Should council support the bill, final passage is not expected until council returns from summer recess in September.
Meanwhile, decisive action is expected on another front. The State Supreme Court will soon rule on several appeals filed against the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, challenging their original awarding of the casino licenses. An unfavorable decision by the Court could leave Sugarhouse and Foxwoods with no license to stand on. According to Abernathy, final briefs in the case are due May 30, with a decision expected soon after.
That ruling will make the City Council fight over casinos "more clear," Abernathy said. "If we lose, maybe it's time we come to the table?"
After the session, probable Mayor-elect Michael Nutter took no particular line on the Ramos bill: "We'll see what happens."
But he did articulate his wider view on casinos: "I am not a particular proponent of casinos, and I do have an objection to the way the siting decision was made; the city was left out of that process."
Nutter said the State Supreme Court decision will really decide whether and how gaming comes to Philadelphia. Should casinos survive the courts and Nutter become mayor, he said he'd continue the push to find alternative sites. And if that fails, Nutter said he'd use the city's zoning powers to reduce the harm to the surrounding neighborhoods and Philadelphia's hoped-for waterfront renaissance.
"The presence of the casino on the waterfront should not negatively affect our ability to properly develop our waterfront the way it should be," Nutter said.