Portland council eyes April 28 vote on rule change for sale of city parks

Portland's Congress Square Park, as it appeared on Jan. 16, 2014. The City Council approved a sale of 9,500 square feet of the publicly owned space to a private hotel developer in September.
Seth Koenig | BDN
Portland's Congress Square Park, as it appeared on Jan. 16, 2014. The City Council approved a sale of 9,500 square feet of the publicly owned space to a private hotel developer in September. Buy Photo
Posted March 25, 2014, at 12:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors on Monday scheduled an April 7 first reading of an ordinance amendment governing council and Parks Commission roles in the stewardship and possible sale of parks.

A draft of the ordinance was presented during a 90-minute council workshop Monday night, drawing praise and some suggestions from councilors and members of the Parks and Land Bank commissions.

While Mayor Michael Brennan initially hoped the second reading and vote could be held during a special April 14 council meeting, he said Monday the scheduling did not work out, so the vote to enact the amendments will likely occur April 28.

The amendments to Chapter 18 of the city code governing parks include designating 39 parks as such, adding a Land Bank Commission member to the Parks Commission, requiring approval of seven councilors before a park can be sold and requiring councilors to seek an advisory opinion from the Parks Commission before voting on park sales.

In materials presented at the workshop, city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta noted parcels such as the Eastern and Western promenades, Baxter Woods, Deering Oaks and Payson Park are already protected by deed restrictions and covenants.

If approved, the ordinance amendments would be effective 30 days after the council vote, or about two weeks before a June 10 referendum on a citizen’s initiative that would shift 35 properties to the city land bank and require approval by eight councilors to sell the parcels.

If six councilors approved a sale, it would be put to a referendum. The citizen’s initiative specifically amends Chapter 2 of the city code, governing the land bank established in 1999.

During discussions of the parks ordinance, Land Bank Commission Co-Chairman Tom Jewell said he preferred that the Parks Commission handle the oversight of the parcels and any advisory opinions.

“It is fair to say the Land Bank commission was fairly puzzled when the referendum came up,” he said.

Robert Levine, who wrote the citizen’s initiative for Protect Portland Parks, said Jewell’s comments came as a surprise, because he had alerted the commission to the citizens initiative last August.

West-Chuhta said the city’s appeal in Cumberland County Superior Court of the decision allowing the citizens initiative is expected to be heard April 9, and she has asked for an expedited review.

If the court allows the referendum and it is approved by voters, it would be retroactive to last September, before a 6-3 City Council vote that allowed the sale of a portion of Congress Square Park to Rockbridge Capital for expansion of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

That would mean the $524,000 sale would also have to be put to a public vote.

If the referendum passes, the amendments to the Land Bank ordinance could not be changed by councilors for five years.

In considering the council ordinance on parks, key questions included what should trigger an opinion from the Parks Commission and how to conform Land Bank and Parks commissions ordinance language.

Councilor Nick Mavodones suggested an advisory opinion should be sought before a land sale is sent to the council from a council committee, while Councilor Ed Suslovic recommended parks commissioners also submit an annual “scorecard” on the condition of city parks.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman suggested University and Oatnuts parks be removed from the ordinance because the parcels are already part of the land bank.

 

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