AUBURN — The City Council spent Monday envisioning Auburn’s future, and what role marijuana will have in its economy. 

As the state Legislature remains in slow discussions on a way to implement a regulatory system for retail marijuana, Auburn will create a council work group to draft potential zoning ordinances. 

It’s the first such move by Auburn officials to take a deeper look at marijuana rules. The previous council took a hands-off approach to marijuana regulations, which has encouraged an increase in medical marijuana growing operations and dispensaries in Auburn. 

City staff called the workshop to receive guidance from the City Council about what direction Auburn should go. Many municipalities have passed moratoriums on recreational pot until the final state legislation comes forward, but Auburn has not. 

After the initial referendum in 2016 to legalize retail marijuana, the state has yet to finalize a law or rules to implement a system that would allow for recreational cultivation, sales or processing of marijuana.

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill in November, and the initial Feb. 1 deadline for the system has now passed.   

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Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development, said it will be difficult to draft any local regulations regarding retail marijuana until after the state does. 

However, he said, Auburn has seen “a lot of activity” in the medical marijuana industry. He said that while many of the large-scale industrial grow operations have not been an issue, city staff is seeing more issues at small-scale operations in multifamily housing. 

That’s raised concerns with Auburn police Lt. Timothy Cougle.

He said the city has run into problems with local growers bending the rules already in place in the city, causing “significant safety concerns.”

According to Cougle, there are 29 grow operations in commercial space in the city. He said “a lot of people are setting up shop here, and are invested here,” getting in on the ground level and ready for when retail stores are allowed.

Auburn is also home to one of eight state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine. Cougle said further rules for the medical industry were also due Feb. 1, but were put on hold. 

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“The state really has to step up, and clean up that bill,” he said, adding that there are aspects of regulation the city can do now and perhaps amend down the line.

The City Council voted 6-1 to support forming a work group. 

Councilor Andrew Titus said he’d like to have an ordinance that encompasses medical and retail. He believes the city should designate zones where grow operations, or future retail operations, are allowed, and “not just wait for the state.”

“We need to have a complete guideline,” he said. 

Cousens said he drafted some zoning standards during the previous administration, but was told by officials that Auburn should “remain open.” He said he was looking for direction so that when people contact the city, he can “send clear messages to people looking for recreational opportunities.”

Councilor Leroy Walker, who voted against creating a work group, said saying no to recreational marijuana would be like saying no to a new craft brewery in Auburn. 

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“It’s going to be all around us anyway, we lose out if we don’t take advantage,” he said.

Council takes up ‘Smart Growth’

Also on Monday, the City Council pondered becoming the first city in Maine designated as a “smart growth community.”

Smart growth is a land development strategy that encourages sustainable growth and walkable downtown centers, while discouraging urban sprawl. It’s described as striking a balance between economic development and protecting agricultural land.

Councilors discussed the planning initiative Monday, but did not take any action. 

Doug Greene, Auburn’s urban development specialist, said that while working recently on walkability projects in the downtown, including on a workforce housing project on Troy St., he realized much of Auburn’s planning work in the last decade has fit under the “guiding principles” of smart growth. 

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He said he saw it as an opportunity to look at the bigger picture, which would drive how the city approaches new projects. 

“In a lot of ways, we’re already there,” he said, referring to recent planning efforts. 

He said Auburn’s comprehensive plan, and the New Auburn Village Center project already fit under the smart growth model. Smart growth encourages a mix of land uses, keeping development in the downtown area, a range of housing opportunities, and walkable neighborhoods, among other points. 

Despite most of the council reacting favorably, Mayor Jason Levesque questioned the need for it. 

He said he was concerned that the planning initiative would just add another layer to government inefficiency.

“There becomes a point when the only people that understand everything are the people who work in city government,” he said. “Are we controlling the free market too much?”

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Nancy Smith, executive director of Grow Smart Maine, an organization that works with communities statewide on similar efforts, said the designation would be voluntary – something that the city could use to boost its image. 

Councilor Bob Hayes argued that implementing smart growth would be under the “framework of what we’re already doing. It’s not adding more layers.”

Councilor Alfreda Fournier said the planning could provide “a vision of how we want to grow,” and would “help us bring some of that community back,” referring to downtown buildings lost to urban renewal in the 1970s. 

“The downtown neighborhood is going to get bigger and bigger for us,” said Councilor Walker. “I’m on board with this.”

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