July 18, 2019
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Opponents submit petitions seeking to block Portland’s sale of Congress Square Park

PORTLAND, Maine — Foes of Portland’s controversial sale of the publicly owned Congress Square Park to private hotel developers on Thursday morning submitted signatures gathered for a petition designed to block the move.

The petition drive — which seeks to trigger a referendum on whether to place Congress Square and other downtown sites within the protection of the city’s Land Bank Commission ordinance — remains under the cloud of a legal challenge.

The city of Portland only turned over petition papers after being ordered to do so by a Cumberland County Superior Court judge, and is now appealing that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

“I think we were all a bit stunned at how fiercely the city has fought this initiative,” said Rob Levin, attorney for the opposition group Friends of Congress Square Park, who said he filed his written response to the appeal Wednesday. “Stunned and disappointed.”

In its appeal, which was filed last month, the city reiterated its arguments that the citizens’ petition process is reserved for legislative changes, but that affecting the disposition of city property improperly crosses the line into being an administrative or fiscal action.

Deciding on city appropriations — a term which Portland Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta argued could be used to apply to property as well as money — is “exclusively within the province of the City Council,” she wrote in the appeal.

In this case, the council voted 6-3 in September to sell nearly 9,500 square feet of the plaza to Ohio-based private developers RockBridge Capital LLC, which helped finance the nearly $50 million renovation of the historic former Eastland Park Hotel nearby and hopes to use the additional Congress Square space for an event center.

On Thursday, opponents of the sale from the groups Friends of Congress Square Park and Protect Portland Parks delivered petitions with more than 4,250 signatures to City Hall. If at least 1,500 of those signatures are verified as Portland residents by the city clerk’s office — and the state supreme court doesn’t rule that the petition drive was invalid — it will set off a chain of events that the Friends group hopes will block the property sale.

The petition calls for a referendum that, if passed, would change the Land Bank Commission ordinance to include Congress Square Park and 34 other city properties not currently protected, and would further require a citywide vote to approve the sale of any of the land bank properties — unless a supermajority of the City Council, or eight of the nine members, votes to sell.

“This isn’t just about Congress Square Park,” Frank Turek, president of the Friends group, said during a Thursday morning news conference. “The climate at City Hall [is such that] they see public parks as viable, legitimate options for development, and we think that’s dangerous.”

If the ordinance change is ultimately approved at the polls, it would trigger a second citywide vote to retroactively vet the council’s September decision to sell most of Congress Square Park. If a public poll taken two weeks before the council’s vote was any indication, the sale would be in jeopardy of being overturned in that scenario.

A September survey of more than 500 Portlanders by the national firm Public Policy Polling — commissioned on behalf of an anonymous source concerned about the sale — found that 49 percent of respondents opposed the transaction while 34 percent approved of it.

“We believe that the actual sale of a public park should be a rare and momentous occasion, and only done when it serves the public good,” said Wellington Lyons, a member of the Protect Portland Parks steering committee, during the Thursday news conference. “It’s ridiculous that public parks can be sold with no more restrictions than a parking lot or vacant space.”

Proponents of the sale, including the Portland Community Chamber, have argued that Congress Square is dangerously close to being a vacant space, and that with the sale, it will go from an underutilized section of pavement to a more vibrant commercial spot.

Supporters of the sale have dismissed the square as a hangout for drunks and drug addicts, and point to the recent case in which singer Elvis Costello’s production manager was stabbed there by a panhandler as an example of how the space has deteriorated in recent years.

But opponents, like those at the Thursday morning petition event, say it’s the city’s responsibility to fix up the park, not just give up ownership.

“It should be more difficult [to sell],” Pat O’Donnell, vice president of Friends of Congress Square Park, said. “It’s a public asset, and you don’t take care of public assets by neglecting them and then selling them off at a discount.”

Under the terms of the sale, RockBridge would pay the city nearly $524,000 for the property, as well as another $45,000 for infrastructure improvements in the area and an additional $50,000 toward a redesign of the remaining 4,800 square feet of Congress Square Park not included in the sale.

According to West-Chuhta, the city has 15 days to verify the signatures on the petitions, then another 30 days after that point to hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance change. At that point, the council must either approve an ordinance amendment or allow the issue to go to the polls for a citywide vote, which both parties consider the more likely scenario. In that case, the most likely date for a public referendum would be June 10.

“We think the [Maine Supreme Judicial] Court will try to resolve this by June, so when people go to the polls, they’ll know it’s a valid initiative,” Levin said Thursday.

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