PORTLAND – A group of Portland residents that objects to the city’s agreement to sell part of Congress Square Plaza has sued the city, asking that a judge allow the group to circulate a petition that seeks to put the plaza and 34 other public spaces in a protected land bank.

Attorneys for the Friends of Congress Square Park filed the lawsuit late Wednesday in Cumberland County Superior Court. They also filed an emergency motion asking that a hearing be held Oct. 4 or soon after that.

Four plaintiffs, all Portland residents, are named in the lawsuit: Frank Turek, David LaCasse, Patricia O’Donnell and former state Rep. Herb Adams.

“This is unprecedented for the city to sell a park to a private developer,” said Turek, a visual artist who is the president of the Friends of Congress Square Park.

“We are disappointed that the City Council doesn’t understand the importance of preserving open space.”

Last week, the City Council voted 6-3 to sell about two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza, at High and Congress streets, for $523,640 to Rockbridge Capital, the company that is redeveloping the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel.

The Ohio-based company plans to build an art gallery and events center on the site.

It plans to reopen the hotel in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The lawsuit by the residents group is the second lawsuit filed against the city this week.

On Tuesday, three residents sued the city in federal court, claiming that its new panhandling ordinance violates the public’s constitutional right to free speech.

On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Brennan said the city attorney, Danielle West-Chuhta, believes the lawsuit challenging the land sale is invalid because it would interfere with the City Council’s ability to dispose of city property and conduct transactions.

West-Chuhta told the group in early September that the citizen initiative process can be invoked only in legislative matters.

She said in a letter dated Sept. 13 that the council alone has authority regarding city property and contracts.

Brennan said the group’s initiative would open the door to more citizen challenges of executive and administrative decisions, which could interfere with city government’s decision making.

But one of the group’s attorney’s, Robert Levin of Portland, said, “We are not trying to gum up everything they do. We are trying to strike a balance.

“We are standing up for the rights of the citizens. It’s a much broader struggle. It’s not just about Congress Square Park,” Levin said.

On Sept. 6, the Friends of Congress Square Park submitted paperwork to the city calling for a citizens initiative to amend and strengthen the city’s land bank ordinance.

Levin said the initiative would establish a new category of land bank property, called “urban open public spaces,” and would designate 35 new properties, including Congress Square Plaza, Deering Oaks and Payson Park, for inclusion in the land bank.

The only way the city could sell any of the properties would be through a vote by eight City Council members or by a vote of six councilors combined with voters’ approval in a citywide election.

Such a sale would also need approval from the Land Bank Commission.

West-Chuhta said the group could not circulate such a petition because it called for something the city charter doesn’t allow.

LaCasse, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a news release, “This citizens’ initiative will help enact a change in city code that will put a stronger set of rules in place for selling protected public parks. It will offer peace of mind to Portlanders, who cherish their public parks.”

Levin said the Friends of Congress Square Park would need 1,500 signatures from registered Portland voters to put the citizens initiative on the ballot in June.

He said there is urgency for the court to rule soon so that the group can collect signatures during the elections on Nov. 5. 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com