Portland voters will decide on the future of Congress Square Plaza and tighter rules for selling other public parks, now that the state’s highest court has rejected the city’s appeal to block a citywide referendum on June 10.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling Tuesday, the latest in a string of legal losses for the city, could ultimately negate the sale of most of Congress Square Plaza to an Ohio-based developer. The referendum also could lead to new rules for sales of public spaces that are more restrictive than standards adopted by the city last month.
After the ruling, an attorney for the petitioners, Sarah McDaniel, called it “a great day for democracy.”
“The court’s decision affirms the longstanding tradition of encouraging participatory democracy in Maine,” said a written statement from McDaniel, who represents the Friends of Congress Square Park, a group that has opposed the plaza sale.
City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city was “disappointed” with the ruling, but will comply with it by holding the referendum June 10.
The group’s proposal would add 35 properties to the city’s Land Bank, which now consists of 25 mostly unimproved properties. It also would require votes from eight of the nine city councilors to sell any protected property. If a smaller majority of councilors voted in support of a sale, it would be put to a citywide referendum.
The Friends of Congress Square Park has maintained that the referendum is about protecting all of Portland’s parks because the ordinance would make it difficult to sell dozens of public spaces, including the small plaza at High and Congress streets that has been the focus of a long-running conflict.
The city is working to frame the issue as a narrower referendum on the sale of Congress Square Plaza.
Last month, the City Council voted to enact a similar ordinance to tighten rules for selling parks in the future, but it excluded Congress Square Plaza.
In a media statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, Grondin focused on the disputed plaza and highlighted the city’s new protections for other public open spaces.
“We’re pleased that the people of Portland will now be able to make a clear choice about the future of Congress Square,” Grondin said.
Congress Square Plaza has been a focus of tension downtown for years. Merchants and others have complained about fights and other problems there, and the city has studied the park’s shortcomings – namely its recessed design, which makes it attractive to vagrants. A panel of citizens voted to hire a landscape architect to redesign the park, but the city never moved forward.
The council angered defenders of the plaza when it voted 6-3 in September to sell two-thirds of the half-acre for $523,640 to Rockbridge Capital, which wants to build a single-story event center there.
The Friends of Congress Square Park collected more than 4,000 signatures to put the proposal on the June 10 ballot to increase protections for city parks by requiring at least eight of nine councilors or a vote by citizens to approve any sales. The ordinance would stall the sale of Congress Square Plaza.
The city fought the effort, first by refusing to grant the group petition papers. Officials argued in Superior Court that the petition would set a dangerous precedent by allowing residents to control the day-to-day administration of city affairs. Petitions can affect only legislative matters, city attorneys argued.
A judge sided with the friends group, forcing the city to issue the petition papers. The city appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, which unanimously upheld the Superior Court ruling Tuesday.
“Here, nothing within the amendments proposed by (the) Friends would seriously impede the day-to-day operations of the city,” wrote Justice Ellen Gorman.
The case was sent back to Superior Court for a judge to determine the legal fees owed to the friends group. Rob Levin, an attorney for the group, said those fees would be re-invested in the park.
“This landmark decision vaults us right toward the June 10 ballot, so let’s get on with it,” the group’s president, Frank Turek, said in a written statement. “The City Council needs to step back and accept the will of its constituents instead of spending so much time and resources working against them.”
The council’s vote last month to limit sales of other parks was largely seen as a way to pre-empt the citizens group. The ordinance requires seven of nine votes on the council to sell a property, and contains no provision for a citywide referendum. And it excludes Congress Square Plaza from the properties covered by the new sale requirements.
Ordinances passed by citizen initiative cannot be changed for five years.
But Grondin said Tuesday that if the friends group’s ordinance is passed by voters, the council will have to go through a process of “squaring the two ordinances.”
When pressed to clarify how the city might do that, city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said a legal analysis would have to wait until after the vote, effectively leaving the issue unresolved for voters who want to make an informed decision.
“We have not finalized our review of that issue, and as I have repeatedly indicated we will be doing this after the election,” West-Chuhta said in an email.
Tuesday’s ruling was the latest in a string of legal defeats for the city.
In February, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a city ordinance against loitering – including political protests and panhandling – in street medians was unconstitutional.
In January, a Superior Court judge ruled against a controversial rezoning of the historic Williston-West Church to allow offices in the West End neighborhood.
The city is appealing both rulings.
Portland is also facing legal challenges over a buffer zone established around Planned Parenthood to move anti-abortion protesters away from women seeking abortions, and its approval of a high-rise development in Bayside known as “midtown.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: