Portland rejects group’s efforts to change ordinance on sale of public spaces

A man holds a sign outside Portland City Hall on Monday night in opposition to the proposed sale of part of the publicly owned Congress Square Park.
A man holds a sign outside Portland City Hall on Monday night in opposition to the proposed sale of part of the publicly owned Congress Square Park. Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 13, 2013, at 5:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland officials on Friday rejected a citizen group’s petition to block the sale of city-owned land in Congress Square.

City officials nixed the petition because they said it would conflict with state law and the city’s charter.

Friends of Congress Square Park, a group formed in opposition to a proposed sale of the plaza to a hotel developer, announced plans in late August to launch a citizens’ initiative to change the city’s Land Bank Commission ordinance in hopes of restricting sales of public spaces including the Congress Square site.

Congress Square Plaza is a 14,300-square-foot public park across Congress Street from the Portland Museum of Art. RockBridge Capital LLC, which along with New Castle Hotels and Resorts is nearing completion of a $40 million-plus renovation of the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel, has agreed to pay nearly $524,000 for a 9,500-square-foot section of the square. The remaining 4,800-square-foot section would remain public space.

The advocacy group submitted affidavits on Sept. 6 to initiate the citizens’ initiative effort, which would, among other things, change the ordinance governing the Land Bank by creating a new category called “urban open public spaces” and placing 35 properties including Congress Square Park in it, according to a press release.

After several days of review, the city’s lawyer has determined the group cannot invoke the the citizens’ initiative process because the amendments it proposes conflict with city code and Maine law, according to the press release.

“Portland city code specifically states that citizen initiatives can only apply to legislative matters and cannot affect administrative matters including city appropriations, which has been defined in some contexts to include the sale of city-owned property,” the release states. “The City Charter clearly places all decisions regarding ‘fiscal, prudential and municipal affairs of the city of Portland’ exclusively in the hands of the City Council and the City Council alone has the decision-making authority regarding the sale of city property.”

The City Council held a public hearing on the proposed sale at its meeting Sept. 9. The council tabled the vote and expects to take the matter back up at its meeting on Monday night.

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