AUBURN — The debate over how to best take advantage of the city’s vast agricultural zone continued Monday as the City Council reviewed the results of a recent study and committee recommendations.
But even the chief recommendation from the ad-hoc committee made up of local farmers — to create a permanent agriculture commission — received pushback from Mayor Jason Levesque.
Levesque questioned whether just one section of the local economy deserves its own permanent committee, and urged the city to get more feedback from the public. However, many, including Mary Sylvester, who chaired the recent ad-hoc committee, argued the city has spent considerable taxpayer money to hire consultants, and that a commission is needed to continue the work.
The city paid Crossroads Resource Center roughly $50,000 to conduct a study of the 20,000 acres, which accounts for about 40 percent of the city.
The crux of the issue has been the argument over whether zoning rules put in place decades ago are too restrictive, and whether they could be relaxed to allow for some development that could add to the city’s tax base.
The committee of stakeholders worked in tandem with the consultant since last fall to study the issue.
The final report from the group said a permanent commission can give a voice to agricultural businesses and provide advice to the council on policy development.
The second recommendation is the eventual elimination of what’s referred to as the “50 percent” rule within the zone. No one is allowed to build a new house in the zone unless they own 10 acres and earn at least 50 percent of their household income from the land through farming, forestry or resource extraction.
The group said the policy should be replaced, but didn’t come to consensus on how. The report said it should be replaced “only with a fully analyzed, researched, and targeted alternative that will serve long‐term goals and priorities for the AGRP Zone and economic sector.”
Many support the permanent commission because of the complexity of the issues.
“If we learned anything, we learned this is complicated,” Sylvester said of the committee’s process. She said loosening the rules too quickly could also lead to “unintended consequences.”
David Haines, who serves as vice chairman, said the enthusiasm for local food and farming could have a huge economic benefit for Auburn, which is in a unique position in Maine.
“I didn’t realize the amount of activity going on in Auburn,” he said, adding that agricultural land is something that “hasn’t been talked about enough in Auburn.”
Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, said there is considerable work to be done to come up with changes. He said areas for further work and analysis include looking at the 10-acre minimum lot size, and the potential for allowing new housing in areas that are no longer suitable for farming.
He said many on the committee were surprised to learn that 74 percent of the 20,000 acres is forested.
Councilor Bob Hayes was among councilors who support a permanent commission. He said some who own land in the zone would be “harmed” by the idea of relaxing the zoning restrictions, while others would take advantage of the changes.
Levesque said that while he’s not opposed to a commission, “95 percent of taxpayers don’t make money through agriculture.” He said the issue deserves “balance.”
Sylvester responded that the consultant hired by the city “sees real opportunities right now.” She called Auburn a “niche sector market that deserves special attention” and that the zone is an “economic development opportunity that merits a deeper dive.”
“A lot of people are trying to get into farming, and we have the land,” said Councilor David Young. “We’re in a good position, and probably need this committee to give us knowledge we don’t have.”
The consultant’s report gives some bleak numbers on farming in Androscoggin County, but also says there are signs of life, including that vegetable production is a growing sector due to “heightened interest among wholesale buyers to feature ‘locally grown’ (New England) produce across the region.”
Levesque questioned why the committee had only two recommendations following a long process.
“Let’s evaluate that as we go forward,” he said in response to forming the permanent commission. He said the city could start another ad-hoc committee to work toward a possible permanent committee.
During public comment, Karen Bolduc, a member of the ad-hoc committee who operates South Auburn Organic Farm, said that during the first meeting of the group, there was skepticism among the members that they “were just figureheads, and that decisions have already been made.”
When she said she was optimistic given the hiring of the consultant and told the group “they’ll listen to us,” there was audible laughter in the room, she said.
“Hopefully you’ll prove that wrong,” she told the council. “We’re sitting on a tremendous resource. Now that we have that land, what are we gonna do with it? No quick rule will answer that, but a permanent committee can more thoughtfully look at those issues.”
This image gives an example of the city’s agriculture and resource protection zone in the southern area of Auburn. The whole area, minus the black, is part of what’s referred to as the “Ag Zone.” (City of Auburn)