Las Vegas Sands gets final approval in Pennsylvania

Land development plans for the Sands BethWorks casino, hotel and conference center, got final approval from the Bethlehem Planning Commission this week at the conclusion of a six-hour meeting.

Las Vegas Sands Corp. will now be able to pursue a building permit to begin construction of its USD 600 million complex with 3,000 slot machines, a 12-story hotel with 300 rooms, an upscale shopping center and an events center with up to 3,800 concert seats. The casino developers hope to have the project built by the middle of 2009.

But the final approval did not come easily, with commission members spending hours discussing details that neither they nor the developers can control. First, they wanted to know how the city will manage traffic during a two-year gap from the time the casino is finished until Route 412 is rebuilt and doubled in width from Interstate 78 north.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has asked the developer to do a traffic study of key intersections before issuing a highway occupancy permit, said Walter M. Lublanecki, Sands BethWorks traffic engineer. Ultimately, PennDOT and the city will have to sign off on a traffic control plan, he said.

Second, commissioners seemed dissatisfied with the idea that PennDOT and not they would have the final word on how the highway entrance from Route 412 to the complex would be built.

The land development plan included a design of entrances from Route 412 and a network of internal roads in the 56-acre project. However, PennDOT must approve the entrance scheme in a process that is likely to take at least another year, Lublanecki said.

It is not uncommon for municipal planning commissions to grant conditional land development approval pending the proper PennDOT permits, but commission member Lawrence Krauter appeared reluctant to go down that road.

Las Vegas Sands and Venetian officials told the commission that there was little more that could be done at the site without a building permit in response to Krauter, who asked why the commission should approve the project without the PennDOT highway occupancy permit.

Frederick H. Kraus, vice president and general counsel for The Venetian, which is owned by the Sands Corp., said the project would come to halt. „We really can’t do anything more at this time,“he said. „If we can’t get approval, then we can’t continue with building.“

Four hours after it began, the meeting had to be moved from Town Hall, where City Council was scheduled to meet, across Payrow Plaza to the Tondabayashi Meeting Room on the second floor of the Bethlehem Area Public Library. Joe Kelly, the solicitor for the commission, said the meeting’s relocation did not constitute a violation of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law because the shift was announced during the continuing public meeting.

But as part one of the meeting drew to a close, Easton resident Billy Givens wasn’t happy with the idea and began to disrupt the meeting, claiming that the commission and the developers would have to answer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency because the project lies in a flood plain.

Commission Chairman Andrew Twiggar told Givens he was out of order and Tony Hanna, the city’s director of community and economic development, tried to calm him down. But Hanna remarked, „It seems more like a filibuster than a meeting.“