Appeal of Portland's Congress Square sale now in Maine high court's hands

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PORTLAND — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments last week on the citizen initiative designed to protect public parcels of land.

But city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said she is uncertain if a decision will be announced in time to keep the question off the June 10 ballot.

The court, with Justice Jon Levy absent, heard the city’s appeal April 9 of Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler’s ruling allowing the initiative drafted by Friends of Congress Square Park.

The petition outlining amendments to the city land bank ordinance was signed by more than 4,200 people last fall, almost triple the 1,500-signature threshold required by the city.

West-Chuhta asked the court to expedite the hearing because of the impending June 10 referendum. City Clerk Katherine Jones must have ballots ready by May 10, she said, and preparation may take two weeks.

City attorney Jennifer Thompson argued the petition that created the referendum question, which would add 35 city properties to the land bank established in 1999, violates the City Charter because it specifically identified the properties while amending the land bank ordinance.

The proposed amendments would also require at least eight councilors to unilaterally approve a sale of a land bank parcel, although a sale could be put to a referendum vote with the approval of six councilors.

On questioning by Justice Donald Alexander and Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, Thompson conceded much of the citizen initiative would be allowed, but the land bank commission, not voters, should determine which parcels are included.

Countering Thompson was attorney Sarah A. McDaniel, for the Friends of Congress Square Park and four city residents, including former Democratic state Rep. Herb Adams.

“(It) should be seen as citizens’ right to their direct democracy,” McDaniel said, rejecting the suggestion the ordinance amendments are a “people’s veto” of the sale of Congress Square Park, because the citizen initiative was drafted before city councilors approved that sale to Rock Bridge Capital by a 6-3 vote last October.

Rob Levine, who wrote the amendments to the land bank ordinance, said he preferred that McDaniel handle the high court arguments because of her experience in litigation.

“I think the court understood the matter and the importance of letting voters have their say,” McDaniel said after the 45-minute hearing.

City councilors are expected to vote April 28 on amendments to the city Parks, Recreation and Public Building Ordinance that would strengthen the parks commission and provide additional protections for public lands. If passed, it would become effective in 30 days, about two weeks before the referendum vote.

The amendments to the parks ordinance include the remainder of Congress Square that would not be converted to an events area for the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, formerly the Eastland Park Hotel.

If the referendum vote proceeds and the land bank amendments pass, the $524,000 sale of about two-thirds of Congress Square Park at the corner of High and Congress streets would be subject to a referendum vote because it was approved 6-3 by councilors, two votes short of the required threshold.

The future of Congress Square will also be discussed Tuesday, April 22, at 6:30 p.m. when the Congress Square Redesign team will review initial assessments and discuss design concepts at a public meeting in the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.