The Williston-West Church on Thomas Street in Portland's upscale West End was at the center of a development controversy.

PORTLAND, Maine — Late last month a group called Friends of the Motherhouse filed suit to overturn City Council approval of a housing project on the site of the historic Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse and Catherine McAuley High School sports fields.

This lawsuit came despite what was touted as a compromise agreement between the developer and local neighbors nearly eight months ago, after builders agreed to cut about 70 housing units from the proposal and cap the campus at 249.

But this isn’t the first time a high-profile project has ended up in the court system or the subject of a citywide referendum. They’re processes some city officials and developers have lamented as expensive and time-consuming deterrents, but which project opponents claim are necessary to protect the scale and character of Portland.

The group Keep Portland Livable came together previously to sue and ice the massive Midtown project — a 3.5-acre, $85 million Bayside development that was delayed by more than two years and downsized as a result of the lawsuit, but will still ultimately bring nearly 450 housing units and 90,000 square feet of retail space to the former industrial scrapyard site.

And there was the lawsuit over the proposed reuse of the historic Williston-West Church, which went all the way up to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2014 before the city’s decision to let Australian businessman Frank Monsour use the residential-zoned building for his company headquarters was affirmed.

Although it wasn’t a public uprising of opposition, a 2007 proposal for 409 Commercial St. was among those hung up by a lawsuit as well. Developers sought to build a 12-story condominium project the undeveloped downtown site, but owners of the neighboring building sued over complaints the new structure would block views and reduce property values.

The suit was unsuccessful in court, but succeeded in delaying construction long enough for the housing market to crater and undermine the project’s financial viability.

Six years would pass before the market recovered and another developer — local firm Avesta Housing — would emerge to build on the site.

Other potential projects have faced opposition at the ballot box instead of the court system.

In response to prospects of a redevelopment of the high-visibility and historic Portland Company Complex on Fore Street, a citizens’ group last year pursued a citywide referendum which, had it passed, would’ve effectively limited how the new owners could have developed the campus, among other things.

Then there was the case of Congress Square, which saw action in both the courts and voting booths. Opponents of a proposed 2013 sale of most of the public square to private hotel developers first sued to be able to pursue an ordinance change referendum against the city’s wishes, then campaigned for the referendum itself, which ultimately passed and stopped the sale.

Seth Koenig

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