AUBURN — A long-discussed analysis of the city’s massive agricultural zone, which accounts for about 40 percent of the city’s land, will be back under consideration. 

City Planning staff Monday presented the City Council with the results of a recent request for proposals for studying the zone. The 20,000 acres is home to working farms and large open parcels, and those in favor argue the city should invest in an outside analysis after years of debate among those in Auburn. 

Many in Auburn, including some farmers, worry a study could lead to zoning changes that would allow more residential development and other big changes, but supporters say a comprehensive study could address challenges facing farmers and help the city take full advantage of the land.  

Studying the zone has been discussed, without action, for many years and confusion remained Monday over what the goals of the study are. 

“We have never spent money to understand the needs and opportunities in those businesses,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said during the meeting.

He said city funding has been allocated many times for the retail and industrial districts, but never for the agricultural zone. 

Planning staff recommended the city hire the Crossroads Resource Center for about $50,000 to conduct a comprehensive study of the zone.

According to a memo from Doug Greene, Auburn urban development specialist, Crossroads Resource Center has done similar work in 39 states, and is working in Cumberland County to develop a food hub program. 

Quoting the proposal from the center, Greene said, “In addition to their very strong body of work and deep understanding of the challenges of farming, they also ‘understand there have been concerns in the community regarding bringing in outside consultants for what is often perceived as a local matter … we find this situation ripe for a neutral party who can accept all viewpoints fairly.'” 

City Manager Peter Crichton, who included funding for the study in next year’s Capital Improvement Plan, called the agricultural zone a “huge asset.”

Despite some public concern and more from a few councilors, he said, “I think the city needs to bring in the expertise to see what we could be doing as a city to develop it more fully, and work with farmers dealing with challenges to position them more for the future.”

Since the discussion was in workshop, no vote was taken Monday. The item will most likely appear on an upcoming agenda. 

Joe Gray, an Auburn resident and farmer, said discussion on what the study actually means has been “confusing all along.” He said many people thought the study was about zoning, and said he was surprised Monday to hear the study is focused on helping agricultural businesses. 

Nonetheless, he said, he doesn’t believe there’s much the city can do to help, given that farming is regulated at the state level. 

Councilors Bob Stone and Andrew Titus were vocal in their opposition to funding the study, instead preferring the city do its own in-house assessment.  

“I prefer to see it taken as far as we can on a local level,” Stone said during the meeting. “I don’t know how we’re going to see $50,000 worth of changes in the (agricultural) zone.” 

Greene said an initial public survey on the zone that received 52 responses was meant to narrow the focus of the request for proposals, and the resulting study. He said the study looks to strengthen the agricultural community, and to better integrate the large land mass into city planning.

He said there have been opinions on how to deal with the sector.

Councilor Grady Burns said the city needs the study because of that mix of opinions. 

“Everyone agrees there’s a problem to be solved,” he said. “This is an opportunity for a third party to take a full accounting of that problem.”

Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development, said the city simply can’t dedicate the level of staffing required to take an in-house approach, especially with the amount of public involvement needed. He also said “very strong opinions” exist on the issue, which warrants in-depth public outreach. 

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