AUBURN – A legal challenge of the approval of a new downtown hotel will likely put the project on ice until at least September.

Riverwatch LLC, the corporation behind the Hilton Garden Inn, filed an appeal in Androscoggin County Superior Court in May on the city’s decision to approve a new hotel near its Great Falls site. Developer Lee Griswold, who built the Hilton five years ago, is asking that the city’s approval be vacated and the project returned to the Planning Board for further review.

The matter is scheduled to be decided by Justice Joyce Wheeler, whose next rotation into the Auburn courthouse won’t happen until mid-August. She has the discretion to determine the case herself or schedule it for trial.

“We are hoping for a quick turnaround time,” said David Galbraith, director of planning for the city. “Everything is in the court’s hands. Until there’s a decision, the project is essentially stuck in the water.”

The $12 million hotel is part of a larger development that includes a municipal garage and bus station. The city is in the odd position of being the authority to grant the approvals and a co-applicant in project, since it is building the garage. The hotel, which is expected to be a Hampton Inn, is being developed by Mullaney Hospitality Group and Great Falls Plaza Development Corp.

The project received initial approval from the Planning Board in April after a lengthy public hearing that spread over two meetings. In his complaint, Griswold said the city exceeded its authority and did not follow proper procedures in giving the project a green light. The complaint cites nine specific examples.

“I’ll let the legal documents speak for themselves,” Griswold said. “The city missed some steps and they need to be corrected. I believe this will all be played out in court.”

Steve Myers, spokesman for Great Falls Development, said he believes all proper procedures were followed and that his company and Mullaney are still eager to begin.

“We are committed to this project,” he said Monday.

The city got an additional legal headache this week when it discovered that it missed the July 16 filing date to respond to Riverwatch’s initial brief. Although the city’s attorney at Bernstein Shur filed the response directly with Griswold’s attorney by the deadline, a copy of the brief was not delivered to the court. The tardy brief was filed Monday morning at the courthouse.

In the initial Riverwatch complaint, attorney Elliott Epstein said the city erred by allowing two Planning Board members to vote on the project when they missed the first part of the two-session public hearing; did not properly waive setback requirements for the garage; failed to require an enclosure for roof-top equipment on the hotel; failed to require proof of Mullaney’s ability to finance the project; and failed to uphold traffic, loading and lighting requirements.

Galbraith said the judge could find that the city erred and remand the case back to the Planning Board with a directive for better findings of fact. Or it could find that the city didn’t make a mistake, and uphold the board’s approval. Or a combination of the two.

“If the court says the city did not err, then the Planning Board approval stands and the applicants can go straight to applying for a building permit,” Galbraith said.

The seven-year veteran of the Planning Department said this was the first time he could recall a Planning Board decision challenged in court. He said it’s ironic since the staff and board members took great care to make sure everything was conducted as transparently as possible.

“We did not want anything challenged … we went to great lengths that way,” Galbraith said.

The project received unanimous approval by the Planning Board April 8. The plan calls for a 110-room hotel on Turner Street, a 300-space municipal garage parallel to the rail tracks and a bus station.

A version of the project was originally approved in 2005 showing an office building, rather than a hotel, in the plans. The earlier version also showed the parking garage several hundred feet closer to the Hilton Garden Inn than the revised version.

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