With mayor in China, Auburn council to continue agriculture talks

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AUBURN — While Mayor Jason Levesque is in China, the City Council is expected to put its support behind his new committee on agriculture and a strategic planning process spearheaded by the city manager. 

The temporary committee will be asked to create draft ordinances on the current income and minimum land-use requirements in the city’s agricultural and resource protection zone, which has been at the center of ongoing discussions about the future of Auburn’s largest protected land mass. 

The new six-month committee, called an “action group,” was formed by Levesque after a previous agricultural committee — made up mostly of local farmers and landowners — worked in tandem with an outside consultant to study the zone.

At issue is 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 zone comprises 45 percent of Auburn’s land. 

While that committee recommended that the current “50 percent income” rule be changed, it did not propose specifics. The zoning rule does not permit a new house to be built in the zone unless the landowner has 10 acres and earns at least 50 percent of household income from the land through farming, forestry or resource extraction.

During a workshop discussion last week, councilors appeared generally supportive of the new effort. 

Meanwhile, on a two-week trade trip to China designed to encourage more Chinese business investment in Auburn, Levesque appears to be discussing the city’s large agricultural zone, specifically its abundance of forestland. 

The recent consultant’s study found that of the nearly 19,000 acres in the zone, 74 percent is forest, a fact that seemed to surprise as least some elected officials. Farmland comprises 13 percent of the zone. 

In his first update from the trip on social media Friday, Levesque said, “Busy first day of productive meetings with China International Trade Group. They came fully informed of Maine’s timber industry. They want our trees!”

When Levesque first announced the trip, he said it would be paid for by Mingjing Industry Group Co., whose president, Fang Cheng Morrow, purchased Prospect Hill Golf Course in Auburn last year.

At the time, she said she and business partner Nianping Wang were scouting locally for land to build a 15-acre, indoor mushroom-growing factory that could create 150 jobs in the next two years. She has also discussed plans for a hotel at Prospect Hill.

For Levesque, and Economic and Community Development Director Michael Chammings, the China trip will include meetings on tourism, factory tours, conversations to explore educational exchanges and the investment of more Asian capital in Auburn’s economy. They are scheduled to return Sept. 24. 

Also on Monday, the council will vote on whether to support a strategic plan initiative that has been criticized by some councilors and members of the public.

City Manager Peter Crichton last week presented a revised version of the planning process, which would pare down an original plan of eight subcommittees to three. 

Crichton said the three subcommittees — growth, quality and investment — will each hold four meetings, with the first convening in October. They’ll be made up of city staff, councilors, members of existing city committees and those appointed by the mayor.

If approved, the process would conclude in the spring when staff would compile information and present the results.

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Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, far right, and Economic and Community Development Director Michael Chammings, center, stand with representatives from the China International Trade Group in Beijing at the start of a two-week trade trip to China. (Jason Levesque photo)

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