AUBURN — A few dozen people streamed into Auburn Hall on Monday to speak against a proposed zoning ordinance that will make it easier for commercial development near the city’s major recreational areas, but most left disappointed.
The City Council voted 5-2 during final reading to implement the ordinance that city officials believe could attract new people and stabilize businesses.
The ordinance will amend zoning language to open up the possibility for commercial or residential development next to the city’s “major recreational uses,” which are limited to Lost Valley resort, Prospect Hill Golf Course, Fox Ridge Golf Club and Martindale Country Club.
City staff and most councilors said allowing some breathing room for development could help the long-term viability of the businesses, which they said have all struggled at times.
However, resident after resident Monday spoke against the measure, stating it could create lasting damage to areas with vulnerable wetlands that funnel into important bodies of water, among other environmental concerns.
The two councilors who opposed the vote Monday – Andrew Titus and Adam Lee – said they preferred the city wait until after a planned study of Auburn’s agricultural zone takes place in the coming year.
Many residents, including farmers, said the city shouldn’t push through zoning amendments in the agricultural zone before the study takes place.
“Can any of you see how this may look underhanded?” asked RitaMae Morin, who introduced herself as a farmer.
She said she was just one in a long line of people opposed to the ordinance. Like many, she said the reason why people live in the neighborhoods included in the agricultural zone is because there isn’t overdevelopment. She said the agricultural zone study should take place before any zone changes, and “should reflect the desires of the people who live here.”
Jan Phillips, a resident of West Shore Road, said the ordinance would “open the door to grave environmental threats.”
Phillips, like many in the audience Monday, also had concerns for a separate project next to Lost Valley.
The resort announced plans in March for Kassbohrer ATV to build a regional assembly and test site for snow groomers at Lost Valley, and many said they’ve already seen activity there that was worrisome, like runoff from the site work ending up in nearby streams.
Phillips said that if the Kassbohrer project is already showing negative impacts on the surrounding environment, the city shouldn’t be considering further changes in the area.
Councilor Jim Pross and those who supported the ordinance said they had confidence in the Auburn Planning Board to make sure any incoming projects are vetted properly.
Pross said the city needs to “eliminate barriers to economic development,” and that the city has missed many similar opportunities in the past.
“I don’t want to walk away from opportunities,” he said.
Development in Auburn’s agricultural zone has been an ongoing and often-controversial topic for the city.
An effort in 2012 to adopt a similar ordinance was supported by the Planning Board and staff but was ultimately scrapped by the City Council after a resident of the Martindale neighborhood organized opposition to a hotel project.
There has even been some skepticism surrounding the study of the agricultural zone.
Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development, told the audience Monday that the city’s 2011 comprehensive plan supports the type of development that the ordinance would allow.
The comprehensive plan also called for considering the ordinance itself, and neighborhood meetings and Planning Board meetings were held. The rural residential, low-density country residential, and agricultural zones, where each of the major recreational areas are located, are limited when it comes to allowing commercial uses.
Cousens told the Sun Journal in August that a hotel or condominium development opportunity exists at Prospect Hill, where new ownership this year has led to increased activity.
He also said that if you look elsewhere in Maine, at well-known ski areas or country clubs, there are countless examples of associated commercial uses like hotels that help the business.
One resident living near Fox Ridge said he’s worried that the development could lead to residents being “taxed off our land.”
The meeting was at times emotional. One farmer, who said she owns 16 acres near South Witham Road, told the council not to “confuse development with progress and growth.”
She said as a farmer, she depends on a variety of environmental factors to make the farm viable.
“To me, healthy water is progress,” she said, adding that the sort of development that could come from the ordinance “is threatening my way of life.”
One woman said she had recently bought her dream home in the area after waiting a long time. She began crying while talking to the council.
But, the prevailing mentality Monday was the idea that Auburn must allow its major recreational areas to thrive by increased business opportunities.
Jason Levesque, a mayoral candidate who lives near Lost Valley, said the ordinance “absolutely needs to happen.” He said Lost Valley has struggled in the past, and if it goes out of business, “it will hurt property values.”
He said “modest accommodations” would allow the areas “to grow in a responsible manor.”
The city’s agricultural zone comprises about 40 percent of the total land mass, or about 20,000 acres.
Councilor Lee, who is also running for mayor, said he would have supported the ordinance following the larger zone study. He made a motion to table the ordinance indefinitely, but it failed by a 2-5 vote.
“We don’t have a project in front of us,” he said. “I don’t understand the rush to enact this before we do the agricultural study.”