The Friends of Congress Square Park on Thursday turned in petitions with more than 4,000 signatures to force a June ballot initiative that, if approved, would make it harder for the city to sell and develop 60 parcels of open space.

The initiative would change Portland’s Land Bank ordinance, which currently includes 25 properties and requires approval of six out of nine city councilors to sell any of them. The group is looking to add 35 properties to that list, including Congress Square Plaza, the Eastern Promenade and the Western Promenade. Those 35 properties can now be sold by a simple majority vote of the City Council.

The City Council voted 6-3 last fall to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to the developer renovating the adjacent hotel. Passage of the citizen initiative could prevent the sale from being completed.

The group collected roughly 4,000 signatures on Election Day in November, which is a city record for a citizen initiative, according to Frank Turek, the group’s president.

“I think it speaks to how enthusiastic people are to see this on the ballot,” Turek said, flanked by supporters including City Council candidates Wells Lyons and Chris Shorr at a news conference at City Hall. “But there’s a cloud hanging over this.”

The city is fighting the petition effort, arguing that the land protection ordinance is administrative, and not subject to a citizens initiative. The city’s attorney has said that allowing the referendum on an administrative decision by the council sets a potentially disruptive precedent.

Portland officials initially refused to provide the group with petitions, but the group 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.

In addition to adding properties to the Land Bank, the proposed ordinance would make it more difficult to sell Land Bank properties.

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 decision would be put to city voters.

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

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.

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

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Twitter: @randybillings