AUBURN – Legal wrangling over a new hotel at Great Falls Plaza has delayed the $12 million project to the point where one of the development partners is uncertain whether it’s viable anymore.

Developer Tom Platz was in the courtroom Thursday, observing the city’s legal team as it argued before Justice Joyce Wheeler that proper procedures were followed in the Planning Board’s approval of the hotel project, which includes a municipal garage.

“This is just a stalling tactic, but it’s working,” said Platz, chief executive of Great Falls Plaza Development Corp. “This is an abuse of the legal process.”

The process in Androscoggin County Superior Court focused on an appeal filed by Lee Griswold and Riverwatch LLC, which opened the Hilton Garden Inn at Great Falls in 2003. Riverwatch is challenging the Planning Board’s April 8 approval of a new hotel at Great Falls, citing improper procedures and an incomplete application from Platz and his partners, Mullaney Hospitality Group and the city. The city is a co-applicant because of the municipal garage.

Even though Wheeler promised a quick decision, Platz expected the legal battles would continue, delaying any possibility of breaking ground on the project this year. He said they already had affected Mullaney’s ability to get a franchise agreement from Hampton Inn, the hotel intended for the site.

“We can’t get a clear title,” Platz said.

Griswold said after the hearing that the legal challenge is not a tactic designed to thwart any competition for his hotel.

“If it were … we would be working equally hard to keep out the other two hotels proposed for the area, and we are not,” he said, referring to the Residence Inn under construction near the Auburn Mall and the proposed Marriott Courtyard across the falls in Lewiston.

Griswold’s attorney, Elliott Epstein, said in court that Planning Board members erred in what, and how, they decided on the application to build the 110-room hotel on Turner Street and a nearby 300-space garage.

“There were ways in which the Planning Board didn’t adhere to the standards of the ordinances and ways in which the procedural requirements weren’t followed,” said Epstein. By example, he noted that two Planning Board members voted on the application when they weren’t present for a portion of the project’s public hearing; the board didn’t require proof of financial backing for the project; and there were other missteps around a loading zone and safety requirements.

He suggested that the “most elegant” solution to the problem was for Wheeler to send the decision back to the Planning Board with instructions to clarify specific concerns outlined in his brief. Once the actions were reviewed and intentions clarified, it would be easier to see whether they complied with the ordinances and proper procedures.

Wheeler asked whether, if she took such action, she could anticipate seeing another appeal, to which Epstein replied, “Yes.”

“Then the town would be back at square one,” she said, while Epstein nodded.

Epstein said even if the judge remands the matter back to the Planning Board and it removes the ambiguities of its actions, there would still be plenty left for legal interpretation.

“We have a difference of opinion about what’s procedurally permissible under the ordinances,” he said, explaining why he anticipates more legal action.

Geoffrey Hole, the attorney representing the city, agreed that some parts of the application could be returned to the Planning Board for clarification, but asked that the ambiguities be cleared up in one fell swoop, so as not to further delay the project.

“The city has an interest in expediting this?” asked Wheeler.

“It does,” said Hole.

Platz said that even if the judge submits a decision within the next week or two, by the time the Planning Board scheduled it and acted upon it, it would be well into the fall. And, anticipating further appeals from Riverwatch, he said it wasn’t likely the application would be fully resolved until next year. The delays mean the project’s future is uncertain, Platz said.

“I believe we will look at our own legal remedies,” he said.


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