November 1, 2013

Judge rules against Portland in plaza dispute

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A judge ruled Thursday that the city of Portland was not justified when it blocked a group of residents from petitioning to increase protection for Congress Square Plaza and other urban open spaces.

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A judge’s ruling Thursday clears the way for a petition effort that could ultimately undo the sale of Congress Square Plaza in Portland to an out-of-state developer.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Frank Turek says Friends of Congress Square Park will start collecting signatures right away in an effort to stop the sale of Congress Square Plaza, in background.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Read the Superior Court decision about Congress Square Plaza

The city plans to appeal, so it remains unclear whether Portland voters will get a say in the future of the plaza at Congress and High streets. The City Council decided last month to sell part of Congress Square Plaza to a developer.

Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ordered the city to issue petition papers to the Friends of Congress Square Park by 3 p.m. Friday so the group can begin collecting signatures calling for a new land-protection ordinance that could reverse the council’s controversial decision.

Frank Turek, president of the group, said he is happy with the ruling, especially because the group will be able to collect voters’ signatures at the polls during Tuesday’s elections.

“We’ve already organized a bunch of petitioners, so we’ll be out on the streets over the weekend if we can and we will be at the polls,” Turek said.

The group needs at least 1,500 valid signatures to put the ordinance change to voters.

The city said Thursday afternoon that it will appeal the ruling.

“Upon review of the decision, and based upon our understanding of the case law, our office remains convinced that the city of Portland’s position is correct,” the city attorney said in a written statement. “Given the ongoing legal process and the complexities surrounding this matter, it is difficult to determine the impact, if any, of this decision on the sale of Congress Square.”

Although the City Council voted to sell the plaza and the sale agreement has been signed, Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said the sale has not been finalized.

The Friends of Congress Square Park is seeking to create a new category of protected open spaces that could be sold by the city only under certain circumstances. It wants Congress Square Plaza to be in that category, which could force a separate referendum on the city’s decision to sell.

“The court’s ruling sends a strong message to City Hall. They can’t reject a petition simply because they don’t agree with its substance,” Turek said in a news release.

Attorneys representing the city and the Friends of Congress Square Plaza had presented their arguments Wednesday in Cumberland County Superior Court.

Four Portland residents are plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Turek, David LaCasse, Patricia O’Donnell and former state Rep. Herb Adams.

The group sued after the council voted to sell most of the nearly half-acre open space at the corner of High and Congress streets to an out-of-state developer that wants to build an event center on the site.

At issue is the city’s rejection of the group’s application to petition to set new standards for the sale of certain open spaces, standards that could keep the plaza and 34 other spaces from being sold.

It now takes only a majority vote of the nine-member council to sell open space, unless the property is designated as part of the city’s land bank. Six votes are needed for any sale of land bank properties.

The change sought by the group would require a vote of eight councilors to sell protected open spaces outright. If six or seven councilors support selling a land bank property, the sale would have to be put to voters in a citywide referendum.

Last month, the council voted 6-3 to sell about two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital for $523,640. The Ohio-based company is redeveloping the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel, with plans to reopen it in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel and build the event center on the land it would buy from the city.

Because the affidavit for the group’s petition was filed before the council vote, the new rules, if adopted by voters, would apply to the sale of the plaza.

Since only six councilors supported the sale, the city would likely have to hold a referendum on the sale.

The council’s decision followed more than a year of negotiations and hours of passionate – and at time raucous – public testimony to save the park. Two council meetings leading up to the sale were interrupted by protesters, and one person was arrested.

Before the council vote, Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling surveyed 507 Portland residents and found that 49 percent opposed the sale, 34 percent supported it and 17 percent weren’t sure.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the Westin hotel, wouldn’t comment on the court decision Thursday, saying he had just learned about it from a reporter.

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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