Opponents of Portland’s controversial Congress Square Park sale claim another victory in court

Congress Square Park in Portland.
Congress Square Park in Portland. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 04, 2013, at 12:21 p.m.
Justice Joyce Wheeler hears arguments in Cumberland County Superior Court Wednesday morning concerning the sale of Congress Square Park.
Justice Joyce Wheeler hears arguments in Cumberland County Superior Court Wednesday morning concerning the sale of Congress Square Park. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — For the second time in less than a week, a group opposing Portland’s proposed sale of publicly owned Congress Square Park to a private developer claimed victory against the city in court.

Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled Monday morning that the city, which had previously rejected a petition drive by the citizens group Friends of Congress Square Park, must turn over petition paperwork to the group by 4 p.m. Monday.

“The city’s asking for the stay seemed really heavy-handed to me,” said Pat O’Donnell, the Friends’ vice president, in a news release. “I’m glad the court called them on it. This bullying is not going to get me to back down.”

The decision allows the group to take advantage of the high traffic Tuesday at the polls on Election Day to collect signatures in support of a referendum — which, if successful, would place Congress Square Park and 34 other public properties under the protection of the city’s Land Bank Commission ordinance.

That protection, which would be retroactive to early September, would force a second citywide vote to ratify the City Council’s 6-3 decision two months ago to sell the space to developers who want to expand the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel.

Wheeler’s ruling Monday ends a temporary stay imposed by Justice Thomas Humphrey on Friday. Humphrey granted the city’s motion seeking the stay until Wheeler, who had heard arguments and made previous rulings on the case earlier in the week, could be available to hear renewed arguments on the motion Monday morning.

Wheeler first handed the Friends group a court victory on Thursday, when she ruled that the city erred by refusing to recognize the petition drive in early September and ordered the city to hand over the petition paperwork by 3 p.m. Friday.

Humphrey’s temporary stay order put that ruling on hold for another three days, however. The city, which is being represented by Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and attorney Jennifer Thompson, hoped the court would stall the petition drive until its appeal of the Thursday ruling can be heard by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In a release issued after Wheeler’s ruling on Monday, the Friends group encouraged supporters to contact city councilors to urge them to drop the appeal.

“The city is wasting their time and the people’s money fighting us on this,” said David LaCasse, the Friends’ treasurer, in the release. “The Superior Court found the city wrong in rejecting our Parks Initiative. The city should stop trying to impede us every step of the way.”

Now, the Friends of Congress Square Park can prepare to collect signatures as soon as Monday night, but if the state’s highest court ultimately rules against them, the ordinance change referendum will be prevented from being put on the ballot.

If the Friends group obtains the necessary 1,500 signatures of registered Portland voters and Maine’s high court upholds Wheeler’s initial ruling, the question will be placed on the June 2014 ballot.

The city clerk and city attorneys have argued the citizens’ petition process could only be used to force legislative actions — policy changes not tied to specific scenarios or applications of law — while the Friends’ proposal was administrative in nature or affected city appropriations.

On Sept. 16, the City Council voted to sell about 9,500 square feet of the park to RockBridge Capital LLC for just less than $524,000.

The proposed sale — the basic terms of which have been agreed to, but which have not been finalized — has been the subject of fierce debate.

Supporters, including the Portland Community Chamber, said the project would revitalize a long underused part of the city’s downtown.

Opponents, including the newly formed Friends group, said the deal sets a bad precedent of selling public space to private entities, and the park was only underused because the city let it fall into disrepair.

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