A citizens’ proposal to make it harder for the city to sell public spaces moved closer to a citywide vote on Monday when the City Council set a mandatory public hearing on the measure after verifying that more than enough residents had signed a petition to force a referendum in June.

The petition effort, led by the Friends of Congress Square Park, could undo the sale of Congress Square Plaza to a hotel developer who is planning to build an event center on the site.

Councilors voted unanimously and without discussion to hold a public hearing on the initiative on Feb. 24.

“There is a lot of interest in Portland parks,” said David LaCasse, the group’s treasurer and the only person to comment on the development.

The Friends of Congress Square Park submitted more than 4,000 signatures to the city clerk’s office on Jan. 17. In a memo presented to the council Monday, City Clerk Kathy Jones certified that the group had reached the 1,500-signature requirement to put the proposed measure – “An Ordinance to Strengthen the Land Bank Ordinance” – to voters.

The referendum would change the Land Bank Ordinance, which includes 25 properties in Portland and requires the 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. The 35 properties can now be sold by a simple majority of the council.

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

Portland officials initially refused to provide the group with petitions, but it 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 properties in the bank.

The initiative would require eight of the nine city councilors to vote in favor of selling protected open spaces outright. If 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 council voted 6-3 to sell two-thirds of the park for $523,000 to Rockbridge Capital, an Ohio-based developer that bought and renovated the former Eastland Hotel into the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The friends group formed out of the debate about whether to sell most of Congress Square Plaza, but after Monday’s meeting LaCasse said it now covers all of Portland’s open spaces.

During his State of the City address last week, Mayor Michael Brennan said he would establish a working group to inventory city-owned land and identify the properties that should be preserved and which ones could potentially be developed.

LaCasse said he supported Brennan’s initiative, but that it wasn’t enough for the friends group to back off its referendum.

LaCasse said the city’s parks department fell victim to budget cuts in 2008. Since then, the maintenance of parks has been less of a priority, he said.

“The city needs to have a good discussion about what parks mean to Portland in terms of socially, economically and livability,” he said.

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

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Twitter: @randybillings