A group of Portland residents plans to submit signed petitions to City Hall on Thursday aimed at preventing private development of Congress Square Plaza and protecting other open spaces from development.

The nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park wants to place a citizen’s initiative on the June ballot that would add 35 properties to the city’s list of protected lands and add new restrictions on the sale and development of those lands. One property would be the half-acre concrete plaza at High and Congress streets, part of which the City Council voted last fall to sell to a private developer.

“Given that the current climate at City Hall is zealously pro-development, we feel that, in their eyes, Portland’s parks and public open spaces have become viable options for development,” Friends President Frank Turek said Wednesday. “Both our identity and quality of life are wrapped up in our public parks and open spaces and we believe that the City Code should reflect this feeling by making the disposal of these invaluable spaces a high bar to cross.”

The city is fighting the petition effort, arguing that the land protection ordinance is administrative, and not subject to a citizen’s initiative.

Portland officials initially refused to provide the group with petitions, but the friends sued in Superior Court and won the right to collect signatures. In November, the city filed an appeal with the Maine Law Court, which has set an expedited schedule for hearing the case.

Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, believes the Superior Court decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“Its determination that these petitions are appropriate, if upheld, would undermine the city’s representational form of government and runs the risk of requiring referenda on even the most minute City Council decisions,” West-Chuhta said.

Attorney Robert Levin, one of two lawyers representing the friends, said the group was to file its response to the city’s appeal on Wednesday.

The city has two weeks to respond and oral arguments could be held in February or March, with a decision thereafter, Levin said.

The Friends of Congress Square Park formed in the spring of 2012 to oppose the sale and development of the plaza to Rockbridge Capital, an Ohio-based developer that renovated the former Eastland Hotel and plans to build a single-story event center on most of the plaza.

The group has since formed a political action committee – Protect Portland Parks – to campaign for the initiative.

Last September, the City Council voted 6-3 to sell two-thirds of the half-acre plaza at High and Congress streets to Rockbridge for $523,640.

The vote came after a contentious debate.

A week before the council vote to sell the plaza, the friends filed an affidavit for a citizens initiative that would add the plaza and 34 other open spaces to the list of protected properties, known as the Land Bank, and add sale and development restrictions.

The initiative would require eight of the nine city councilors to vote in favor of selling protected open spaces outright.

If only six or seven councilors supported a sale, the question would be put to city voters.

The sale of Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital could be nullified if the new ordinance is enacted, because the request for petition forms was filed before the council’s vote.

The friends have until Jan. 22 to submit their signatures, but plan to hand them in Thursday. Once submitted, the City Clerk’s office will have 15 days to verify them. Only 1,500 valid signatures are needed.

If the group meets the signature requirements, the City Council must set a date for a public hearing on the referendum to be held within 30 days. The City Council could then decide to enact the proposed referendum, send it to voters as is, or make minor changes to the wording.

Rockbridge has yet to file a site plan application for its $3.5 million event center with the city’s planning department, according to a city official.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings