Auburn mayor creates new committee for agricultural zone

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AUBURN — Mayor Jason Levesque announced Wednesday the formation of a mayor’s “action group” on agriculture and resource protection. The announcement follows months of discussions over the future of the city’s large agricultural zone, and pressure to act on previous recommendations.

The new group comes after a previous committee spent six months working in tandem with an outside consultant to study issues relating to the zone.

While the committee ultimately issued two recommendations to the council, Levesque disagreed with how to proceed and the city has not yet addressed it.

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.

Among the initial recommendations from the first committee was the elimination of what’s called the “50 percent income” rule, which does not permit a new house to be built in the zone unless the landowner owns 10 acres and earns at least 50 percent of household income from the land through farming, forestry or resource extraction.

The second recommendation — that a permanent agriculture commission be established — was rebuffed by the mayor, and several city councilors have since said they are concerned no action has been taken following the final report.

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In a memo issued Wednesday, Levesque said the new ad-hoc committee will be tasked with crafting draft ordinances that address the income and minimum land usage requirements in Auburn’s agricultural and resource protection zone.

He said the process will consist of four to six public meetings over 60 days starting Oct. 2.

The mayoral appointees to the committee will consist of a city councilor to be selected by the council; a Planning Board member nominated by the Planning Board chairman; a Conservation Commission member nominated by the commission chairman; two residents working in the agriculture industry; a resident or landowner in the zone; a resident at-large; and either Levesque or a designee acting as a nonvoting chairman.

Levesque said Wednesday that the Planning Board and Conservation Commission play important roles in zone changes and need to be included in the discussion.

He said the new committee will have a “focused charge to address the issues and come up with viable solutions,” ultimately bringing draft ordinances to the Conservation Commission, Planning Board and eventually the City Council to act on.

Levesque called the action group a “stop-gap” in response to the first committee’s recommendations. He said his initial objection to establishing a permanent committee was concern for “redundancy” among other committees.

Last year, the city paid Crossroads Resource Center roughly $50,000 to conduct a study of the zone’s 20,000 acres, which accounts for about 45 percent of the city.

The previous agricultural committee said the 50 percent income policy 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.”

During recent council meetings, discussion over a strategic planning initiative has also been questioned. Last week, Auburn resident Joe Gray, who served on the initial agricultural committee, said Levesque has “made it clear he does not want an (agricultural) commission.” The proposed strategic planning committees included one for agriculture.

“He doesn’t want one with farmers, he wants one with people he can put on it,” Gray said.

Levesque’s memo states that all resident applications must be received by the Appointment Committee no later than Sept. 15, with Levesque announcing the members of the committee on or before Sept. 30.

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