PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night set a course to rezone “urban squares” — such as the high-traffic Monument Square and the embattled Congress Square — under the city’s Recreation/Open Space zone.

The council officially requested that the Planning Board evaluate the rezoning plan and report back by April 14, when the council hopes to enact the sweeping rezone in concert with an ordinance amendment that would add new protections to a number of city parks and squares.

The moves are part of a multipronged effort to address concerns that publicly owned spaces are too vulnerable to being sold to private developers — while carefully not overturning the sale of about two-thirds of Congress Square Park to hoteliers, the move that largely triggered those concerns to begin with.

Those on the council who originally voted against the sale defended the rezone effort as being important regardless of what happens with Congress Square.

The council in recent weeks has been preparing its defense against a citizens’ petition that seeks to strengthen the city’s Land Bank Commission rules and retroactively place Congress Square and 34 other public properties behind the fortified ordinance.

If the petitioners’ ordinance is passed by Portland voters at the polls on June 10, the Congress Square sale approved by the council in September would be put out to another citywide vote for ratification and potentially overturned.

The council is eyeing a competing ordinance that would add new protections for many of the properties listed by petitioners, such as Deering Oaks Park and the Eastern Promenade, but would allow the Congress Square sale to be finalized.

City officials hope that by posting a more protective ordinance of their own and rezoning the urban squares, most of which are currently in business development zones, they can convince voters the more restrictive Land Bank Commission proposal isn’t necessary.

“I wish you had discovered this a couple of years ago before the council decided to sell one of our parks, Congress Square, and I wonder if this move is to somehow combat the citizens’ initiative, which got more than 4,000 signatures,” Cumberland Avenue resident Joan Grant, an opponent of the sale, told the council Monday night.

“Why is there this rezoning charade by City Hall now … when they don’t even respect Congress Square voters?” asked city resident Nancy Page Akers.

But Councilor Kevin Donoghue, one of three who voted against the sale in September, disagreed. He said that zoning the squares as Recreation/Open Space would force any future effort to redevelop them to seek Planning Board approval for a rezone back into another kind of buildable zone.

“I … do see this as a meaningful protection for city squares,” Donoghue said. “It does something that neither the council’s nor the citizens’ initiative does, which is introduce the Planning Board into the process.”

Fellow Councilor David Marshall, another of those who voted against the sale, agreed: “I don’t see this [rezone] as being in opposition to [the petitioners’ ordinance], I see this as being complementary to it.”

The petitioners turned in more than 4,250 signatures to the city clerk’s office asking for the ordinance change, a number nearly three times the 1,500 names necessary to force the citywide vote.

The petition drive itself, however, remains under the cloud of a legal challenge.

The city of Portland only turned over petition papers after being ordered to do so by a Cumberland County Superior Court judge last fall, and is now appealing that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The council voted 6-3 in September to sell nearly 9,500 square feet of the plaza for nearly $524,000 to Ohio-based private developers RockBridge Capital LLC. RockBridge helped finance the nearly $50 million renovation of the historic former Eastland Park Hotel nearby and hopes to use the additional Congress Square space for an event center.

Proponents of the sale, including the Portland Community Chamber, have argued that Congress Square is dangerously close to being a vacant space, and that with the sale, it will go from an underutilized section of pavement to a more vibrant commercial spot.

But opponents have said it’s the city’s responsibility to fix up the park, not just give up ownership.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.