Portland City Council mulls land bank ordinance, Congress Square Park strategy

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PORTLAND — City councilors will vote Monday, March 3, to either enact a citizen’s initiative designed to preserve parks and open spaces, or to place the measure on the June 10 referendum ballot.

What remains unknown is if councilors will enact a competing ordinance that excludes Congress Square Park, or if they will place that on the ballot, too.

No decisions about the competing ordinance drafted by Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta were made in a brief workshop Monday night.

But supporters of the citizen’s initiative that would add 35 parks and recreation areas to the city land bank were a vocal majority during a 60-minute public hearing in a special council meeting after the workshop.

“There is a mandate from the masses that this be put on the ballot in June,” Grant Street resident Frank Turek said, although he and others, including attorney Rob Levin, urged councilors to skip the election by enacting the ordinance themselves.

The ordinance petition, which is still the subject of a Cumberland County Superior Court dispute over its content, received more than 4,200 signatures last fall, almost triple what is needed to be presented to councilors.

The proposed ordinance to strengthen the land bank, which was created in 1999 by a unanimous council vote, would require approval from eight councilors before any land bank parcels are sold. If six councilors approve the sale of a land bank parcel, the sale would be put to a referendum vote.

If the citizen’s land bank ordinance is approved in a referendum election, it cannot be amended by councilors for five years.

The ordinance was crafted by Levin, representing Protect Portland Parks, which was formed after Friends of Congress Square Park members could not prevent council approval of the sale of about 4,800 square feet of the park to RockBridge Capital, which was renovating the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, formerly the Eastland Park Hotel.

The company plans to eventually build a ballroom on the property.

The draft of an ordinance revision considered by councilors leaves Congress Square Park off the list of land bank parcels and would require seven councilors to approve the sale of a land bank parcel.

Supporters of the citizen’s initiative accused councilors of ignoring the will of their constituents by appealing the court decision allowing the petition to be presented, and by creating their own ordinance that may muddy the referendum picture.

“The actual sale of a park should be a rare and momentous decision,” High Street resident David Lacasse said.

Not all speakers agreed Congress Square Park, the paved plaza at the corner of High and Congress streets, qualifies as a park.

“It is not green, it is not Deering Oaks, it is not Baxter Woods,” Casco Street resident Mark Riley said, adding that requiring eight affirmative councilor votes would be “crazy.”

Former City Councilor Nathan Smith, who has represented RockBridge Capital but said he was speaking on his own Monday, said the best way to prevent sales and preserve parcels is to amend the City Charter.

“We never had in mind this kind of use for the land bank,” Smith said, adding that he doubts the plaza qualifies as a park.

Smith said he is not sure the petition signatures indicate the petition will have majority support at the polls, and noted the five-year sunset means there is no guarantee of everlasting protection.

High Street resident Steven Scharf ended the hearing by telling councilors that parks and open spaces are not the most important parts of the city.

“The most important places are the taxpaying properties in Portland,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. 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.