AUBURN – The city could get the authority to decide if big retail developments will have a positive impact or not.

Councilors are considering changes to the city’s zoning code letting them avoid some pieces of the informed growth act. That’s a 2007 law requiring municipalities to conduct impact studies on new developments larger than 75,000 square feet before approving them. Part of the act requires developers to pay the state $40,000 to cover the costs of those studies.

Municipalities are supposed to perform economic analysis as part of the act, then bill the state for those costs. The state will reimburse up to $39,000, according to City Planner Eric Cousens.

“It all seems kind of difficult and vague for developers, one more hurdle they have to go through,” Cousens said.

Cities and towns can opt out of the state’s requirements if they adopt economic reviews of their own as part of their review process. That’s what councilors are considering.

Cousens said he expects the matter to come up for public review at the June 15 meeting.

He’s recommending the city adopt an ordinance similar to one Lewiston adopted a year ago. Lewiston’s plan lets developers pay the consultant directly and allows them to choose any qualified consultant. The city has the option of hiring a second consultant to review the first consultant’s work – at the developer’s expense.

Councilors favor the changes, with some caveats. At the June 1 City Council meeting, Councilor Bob Mennealy said he is skeptical about letting developers hire consultants.

“It’s been my experience that a consultant will say whatever the person paying them wants them to say,” Mennealy said. “I’d be more comfortable if we had our own staff perform the economic analysis.”

Mayor John Jenkins agreed.

“I do think our staff has all of the skills,” Jenkins said.

Cousens said the specific economic analysis is designed to look at the impact on wages and on other area businesses. No matter who pays, Cousens said the consultant would answer to the city.

Cousens said the city has not seen a large-scale retail development be proposed since before the growth act was enacted.

The city has been approached by a development search firm, representing an unnamed business. That firm asked general questions about the city, but had not discussed a particular parcel.

“We thought it was wise to get this taken care of now before there is a project to be reviewed,” Cousens said.


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