PORTLAND – City officials are warning protesters who oppose the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza that they cannot camp there without city approval.
Occupy Maine plans a three-day encampment this weekend to protest the proposal for the city to sell part of the plaza to an Ohio-based developer.
Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s lead attorney, said in an email that an encampment of less than three days would need the city manager’s approval, and a longer stay would need the City Council’s approval.
“In addition, any event of more than 25 people would need a permit” from the recreation department, West-Chuhta wrote Wednesday, the day the Portland Press Herald reported on the potential occupation.
West-Chuhta sent the email to John Branson, a Portland attorney who helped Occupy Maine protesters in their clash with the city in 2011.
Activists plan to protest the proposed sale of 9,500 square feet — about two-thirds — of the nearly half-acre plaza at Congress and High streets to Rockbridge Capital, which wants to build an event center. That would leave 4,800 square feet for a redesigned urban plaza.
Rockbridge Capital, which is redeveloping the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel, would pay $524,000 for the city land. Activists have launched an online fundraising campaign through WePay.com to match that offer.
The City Council has scheduled a public hearing and potential vote on the sale Monday.
The long clash over the future of Congress Square Plaza may reach a new level of intensity Friday. Proponents and opponents plan dueling public events at the plaza during the evening’s First Friday Art Walk, one of the busiest days of every month downtown.
Supporters of the sale will set up an informational table about Rockbridge Capital’s proposed event center, said Jill Barkley, a Parkside resident who was hired by the developer to advocate for the sale, along with David Farmer, a Democratic political consultant.
Opponents of the sale plan a burlesque show to raise awareness and money to save the public space.
The Friends of Congress Square Park plan a news conference in Lincoln Park on Friday morning to announce a petition drive to change the city ordinance to require a citywide vote to sell any public land, rather than a simple majority vote by the council. The group will begin collecting the required 1,500 signatures at Congress Square Plaza.
Occupy Maine, whose members oppose the sale of any public land, has been discussing an encampment and rallies opposing the sale in the three days leading up to the council’s vote.
One activist, William Hessian, said the city’s email warning has emboldened some members of Occupy Maine, who see it as a sign that their efforts are making an impact and that any encampment must be “bigger and better” than previously planned.
Others have been discouraged from participating because they don’t want to get in trouble, Hessian said.
“I want this to happen,” Hessian said of the potential occupation. “I think this is very, very important.”
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday to discuss what his department’s response will be if protesters try to set up camp Friday.
The proposed sale of the plaza has revived a core group of Occupy Maine members who set up camp in Lincoln Park for four months in 2011 as part of a global protest against the perceived corporate takeover of government, among other grievances.
The protests started in Monument Square, then moved to Lincoln Park — at the city’s request — to minimize the impact on businesses and tenants.
As the encampment and associated nuisances grew, the city required the campers to get a permit and address public safety hazards. When a permit was denied, the protesters sued the city to remain in the park.
After the judge ruled that the city could close the park at night without violating First Amendment rights of protesters, the encampment eventually dissipated without incident.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: