AUBURN — The city can do a lot more to encourage agriculture, rural development and open space use, Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said Monday night.

“We need to find out who’s working in our agriculture zone,” LaBonte told city councilors at a workshop meeting Monday night. “Who is out there with businesses, the people who actually live and make their living there? We need to understand how their business works and what opportunities they see to grow their business. Can the city help facilitate that?”

Councilors are discussing the need for a study of the city’s agriculture and resource protection zone, which has been a part of city codes and policies since the 1950s. It covers 20,000 acres in the city, about 40 percent of the city’s total area.

“Is the zone in the way of their growth opportunities?” LaBonte asked. “And are there other businesses who would like to come to Auburn? It’s more about economic development activity. We spend all of our time chasing big-box stores, doing giant industrial parks or doing economic incentives in target areas, while 40 percent of our land mass is in the ag zone and we never spend time engaging with the business owners that live there.”

The agriculture zone is designed to promote open space and the use of natural resources, encouraging farming, forestry and recreation.

One way it does that is by keeping house lot sizes high — a minimum of 10 acres. In contrast, the suburban residential zoning classification allows house lots of half an acre or more. Urban residential-zoned house lots can be as small as a quarter of an acre.

That difference has an economic impact. Since the agriculture zone does not allow as many house lots as the residential zones, the properties tend to have lower property values — and to pay smaller property tax bills.

City Planner Doug Greene said councilors have called for amending the district’s rules several times in the past few years but have never agreed to pay for a study.

“We want to have a balanced approach, and we don’t want to have a specific agenda,” Greene said. “We understand that there is a lot of interest by the public who want to be involved. We hear it, and we know you are hearing it, so we are ready to get the process started.”

Greene said it would cost the city about $40,000, involving inventories of lands in the zone by looking for slopes, wetlands, farms, as well as a review of landowners. It would involve several public meetings to discuss and review potential changes.

Councilor Andy Titus said he was skeptical and didn’t want to pay for outside consultants to come in and tell the city what needs to happen. The most important thing is making sure the city sets specific goals and decides what the zone must do before starting the study.

“I don’t want a consultant coming in to tell us how we should run our business,” Titus said.

LaBonte argued for a more open-ended approach that encourages residents and farmers to talk about what they need before the city starts setting goals.

Councilors agreed to continue discussion at a workshop meeting in September.

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