AUBURN — The City Council cleared the way for a new mayor’s committee on the city’s agricultural zone, as landowners upped the pressure on officials to modernize the zoning rules.
Councilors voted 7-0 in favor of the committee. Alfreda Fournier and Holly Lasagna will serve as council representatives.
The new temporary committee, formed in the wake of a consultant’s study and initial committee that studied the zone, will be asked to create draft ordinances on the current income and minimum land-use requirements in the zone, all within a short time.
The best path forward has been debated for weeks, including Monday, when the council agreed that on top of Mayor Jason Levesque’s new committee, a permanent agriculture commission should eventually be formed.
However, during the meeting, several Auburn landowners came forward to urge action, stating the zoning rules that impact more than 40 percent of all land in Auburn are far too restrictive.
Auburn landowner Peter Moore spoke at length during public comment Monday, describing the changes needed in the zone as “agricultural zone modernization.”
Moore owns some 800 acres near Jordan School Road, but cannot live there because the city’s income rules state that to build a home, landowners must make at least 50 percent of household income from farming.
“I can’t live on my property, which is a real travesty,” he said.
He said the city can find a way to increase economic activity in the zone, and increase tax revenue without burdening the existing farmers.
Moore argued Auburn “could be the breadbasket of southern and central Maine” if its policies supported agricultural uses of the present day, like small-scale homestead farms that produce primarily organic food.
“The ordinance is a complete impediment to any economic activity. People need to be on their farms,” he said. “What are we waiting for? The rest of the world is going by.”
Three more people spoke after Moore, sharing similar situations. Kelly Walker said she works seven days a week on farmland she owns with her husband in the same area, but she can’t live there.
“The farm doesn’t just shut down,” she said.
Levesque said he’s recently received four calls from residents wanting to build a home on land their families have owned for decades, but can’t. While he has been reluctant to support a permanent commission in the past, Levesque said planning would begin with Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell.
Levesque said the previous proposal that the permanent commission include all members of the farming community “opens a Pandora’s box,” where any sector of Auburn’s economy could ask for a commission to advocate for beneficial changes in that zone.
Councilor Andrew Titus said the permanent commission should be formed while the temporary committee, working under a 90-day window, looks at the specific income requirements in the zone.
Councilor Leroy Walker said city officials have been delaying action on the issue for years. He told the council that a lot of landowners in south Auburn have been listening to the council debate the agricultural zone rules for some time.
“They’re saying, ‘You guys are phonies, you’ll never get anything done,'” he said. “It’s time for us to wake up.”
Bob Hayes, while voting to support the mayor’s committee, said he didn’t believe the temporary 90-day committee would do “true justice” to the complicated zoning issues. Along with others, he said that’s why there’s a need for a “parallel endeavor” of the permanent agriculture commission.
At the previous council meeting in September, when the council tabled a vote on the committee, other landowners in the zone criticized the mayor’s plan, stating that the original committee recommended a permanent commission.
Karen Bolduc, a farmer and a member of the previous committee, said Levesque’s proposal “is not what our committee had in mind,” especially after the consultant’s study cost taxpayers more than $40,000.
When it was brought up by Councilor Belinda Gerry on Monday, Levesque said the previous committee’s work has concluded, and he urged all members to apply for the new committee.
Prior to the council vote Monday, someone in the audience shouted, “We’re not getting any younger.”