Referendum on tighter control of Portland parks set for June 10

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PORTLAND — Voters on June 10 will decide the fate of a referendum designed by supporters to protect city parks, but city councilors may yet enact their own ordinance before the election.

By a unanimous vote Monday night, councilors declined to enact the citizen’s initiative that would add 35 properties to the city land bank and require eight councilors to approve the sale of land bank property.

Councilors then unanimously placed the question on the ballot and ultimately decided to hold at least one more workshop on a competing ordinance they could enact this spring.

The citizen’s initiative specifically includes Congress Square Park, adjacent to the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The council approved sale of most of the park to hotel developers RockBridge Capital, which led Protect Portland Parks to develop the proposed amendments to the land bank ordinance.

“The citizens’ initiative is a vital component of our democracy and an important mechanism to allow citizens to enact legislation that elected officials sometimes refuse to enact on their own,” organization spokesman Wells Lyons said in a news release Tuesday.

With the template for a council ordinance amendment already in place after a Feb. 24 workshop, councilors spent 30 minutes determining their next steps before accepting Councilor John Coyne’s motion to have another workshop instead of assigning the question to a specific council committee.

Because a council ordinance amendment would require two votes and a public hearing, it proved difficult to place the question on the agenda for the Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee in a timely enough fashion to enact any changes before the June 10 election.

As now written, the city draft amendment does not include Congress Square Park in the expanded land bank and would allow sale of land bank parcels with the approval of seven councilors.

The citizen’s initiative would allow a land bank sale with approval of six councilors, but only after a referendum election upholds the sale.

Councilors were encouraged to enact the citizen’s initiative by several speakers, including Chris O’Neil and Steven Scharf, because it could then be amended after 30 days. If passed as a referendum question, the land bank revisions could not be amended for five years.

But Councilor David Marshall noted that immediately enacting the revisions would kill the land sale to RockBridge. Councilor Ed Suslovic summarized council sentiment by noting that enacting the citizen’s initiative as a tool to amend it would be improper.

The citizen’s initiative to amend the land bank ordinance drew more than 4,200 signatures last fall. It was turned aside by the city, but then upheld in Cumberland County Superior Court.

City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said Monday the city’s appeal of the court decision may be heard early next month, and she believes the court may make a decision before referendum ballots must be printed.

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

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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.