The Portland City Council on Monday grappled with the details and time line for enacting an ordinance designed to thwart a citizen-led effort to both save Congress Square from development and increase protections on 34 other open spaces in the city.
Even though the final language of the city ordinance is not finished, Mayor Michael Brennan pushed for an aggressive schedule so the ordinance can be enacted well before the June 10 election, when the citizen initiative will appear on the ballot.
“I do think, in terms of having a public debate and a campaign, that resolving this more quickly is better than letting it linger,” Brennan said.
Other councilors, however, were concerned about rushing the process without giving interested parties, such as the Parks Commission, enough time to weigh in on the proposal.
“I’ve lost track of our policy direction,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue said. “Are we making policy or are we maneuvering an election?”
The council’s ordinance is a response to a citizen initiative that would add 35 properties to the city’s Land Bank, which currently has 25 properties.
The Friends of Congress Square Park proposal, which received more than 4,000 signatures to appear on the ballot, would require a vote of at least eight of the nine councilors to sell a Land Bank property outright. If six or seven votes are received, the sale would be put out to voters.
The citizen initiative grew out of the council’s decision to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital, which intends to build an event center there. That sale, which was approved by a 6-3 vote of the council after a contentious public debate, could be nullified if the citizens ordinance is passed.
Councilors, however, believe the citizens initiative is too restrictive.
The council’s ordinance would protect the same properties, with the exception of Congress Square. But only seven votes would be needed to sell those properties and there is no provision for a citywide referendum.
In addition to the council’s ordinance, Donoghue said that any park, square or plaza that is located in a downtown business zone should be rezoned as recreational open space. He noted that proponents of the Congress Square sale frequently pointed out that the parcel at Congress and High streets was zoned for business use.
“Zoning doesn’t necessarily change our ability to dispose of (a property), but it certainly sends a message about what our policy is in those areas,” Donoghue said.
On Monday, the council will vote on an order directing the Planning Board to consider rezoning the downtown plazas as recreational open spaces.
It will hold a workshop on March 24 to get the input of the Parks Commission. A first reading of the ordinance will take place on April 7, followed by a vote on April 14.
Meanwhile, the city continues to contest the legality of the citizens initiative.
The Friends of Congress Square Park was initially denied the right to petition by the city, but that decision was overturned by a judge in Cumberland County Superior Court. The city is appealing that ruling.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: