A judge has ordered Portland to reimburse Friends of Congress Square Park more than $50,000 in legal fees incurred during the group’s successful legal battle involving the fate of the plaza.

The legal dispute culminated on May 6 when Maine’s highest court rejected the city’s attempt to block a referendum on the future of the downtown park. Specifically, Friends of Congress Square Park was denied petition forms, which it requested after city officials decided to sell two-thirds of the plaza to Rockbridge Capital, the company that renovated the adjacent Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Portland voters passed the ballot question a month later, thwarting the sale of the park and changing the process for selling other public spaces in the future.

On Aug. 18, Maine Superior Court Judge Joyce Wheeler ordered the city to pay $50,834.50 plus interest to the Friends of Congress Square Park. The order comes as members of the revived Congress Square Redesign Study Group began meeting to analyze potential options for improving a plaza located in the heart of the city’s busy Arts District.

Wheeler rejected the argument by Portland’s legal team that City Hall should not have to pay the attorney’s fees because Maine law was unclear on whether the city was obligated to provide the Friends group petition forms to collect signatures for a referendum.

“Furthermore, although the city contends that it acted in good faith to protect its rights in this case, the court notes that the city withheld the citizens’ initiative petition forms without any legal justification,” Wheeler wrote. “The city forced plaintiffs to file suit and litigate on an expedited schedule just to obtain the requested petition forms. As the city concedes, municipalities must proceed with caution when constitutional rights are involved and should err on the side of ensuring free exercise of political speech.”

Representatives for Friends of Congress Square Park could not be reached for comment on Friday. In the past, group leaders have said they would invest any reimbursed legal fees back in the park.

The Congress Square lawsuit is one of several legal cases in which the city might be obliged to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees to the opposing party. The city also lost two other cases involving ordinances restricting protests outside of Portland’s only abortion clinic as well as access to locations where individuals could panhandle for money. Those cases are under appeal.

Meanwhile, discussions about the future of Congress Square continue.

The 17-member Congress Square Redesign Study Group met last week to begin developing recommendations for improving the plaza. The group will examine several options, including: redesigning the plaza while maintaining its current footprint and developing two-thirds of the space with an event center featuring a rooftop park.

David Marshall, a City Council member who is co-chairing the redesign group, said the group had a productive initial meeting. The group, he said, asked city staff to conduct additional analysis of the costs of each option, especially the rooftop park scenario.

Marshall said the city’s initial estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million for the rooftop park did not include all of the additional structural engineering and infrastructure – such as an elevator – that would be required to accommodate a rooftop park.

Marshall said “it was very clear from Rockbridge and the Westin (representatives) that if we do that, all of the extra costs wold have to be carried by the city.”

The study group’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 17.