AUBURN — A committee tasked with modernizing zoning laws for the city’s vast agricultural and resource protection zone is moving ahead with proposed changes. 

The amended zoning language is intended to loosen Auburn’s historically strict rules, making it easier for people to build homes on land they already own while encouraging small agricultural operations.

The committee will take up the draft ordinance changes and hold a first-reading vote when it meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Auburn Hall. The meeting is scheduled to include a public hearing.

Since the 1960s, zoning laws restricting 40 percent of the city’s land mass have stipulated that in order to build a new home, a property owner must own at least 10 acres and earn 50 percent of household income from agriculture or forestry.

The proposed changes to the ordinance, drafted by Mayor Jason Levesque’s action group on agriculture and resource protection, would lower the standards to allow anyone with at least 3 acres to build a home. However, the lot has to have existed as of Jan. 1, 2018, in order to eliminate large landowners from subdividing. 

It would also dramatically ease the current income standard. Anyone reporting income of at least $1,000 from agriculture per year, or showing an investment in agriculture purposes of $1,000 would meet the criteria. 

Eric Cousens, director of planning and code enforcement, said Wednesday that the proposed changes would be “a pretty substantial shift in the policy the city’s had since the ’60s.” 

“The city has a long history of limiting growth to areas that are not in the (agricultural) zone. This would open up that area to housing with a much lesser standard for what agriculture is,” he said. 

Changes to the zone have proven to be controversial in Auburn, with farmers and landowners wary of simply stripping away language that could open up the zone to unfettered development. 

At a City Council meeting in October, the council unanimously approved Levesque’s new committee, which set a 90-day timetable for drafting ordinance changes. 

Levesque has been criticized for establishing the committee after a previous group had worked with an outside consultant to study the zone and had come up with recommendations. The city spent $40,000 on the study and received recommendations to establish a permanent agriculture commission in Auburn, which Levesque was accused of ignoring. 

At the same October meeting, however, multiple landowners pressed the city to act on the changes. Many said they operate small agriculture uses or farms in Auburn, but can’t build a home because they do not meet the income requirements.

“The ultimate goal here is we want to maintain our rural characteristic, but also modernize the zone in order to allow a fairness approach,” he said.

Levesque said Wednesday that the proposed changes would encourage growth of the city’s agricultural industry, by allowing people to “start off small” or be a hobby farmer. 

“Things aren’t like they were in 1964,” he said, adding “it’s hard, if not impossible” to have 50 percent of a family’s income derived from agricultural activities, especially on a new farm. 

Peter Moore, who serves on the mayor’s committee, told the council in October that he owns 800 acres near Jordan School Road, but cannot live there because of the income requirements. 

He told officials that Auburn could be a prominent place for agriculture in Maine if its policies supported agricultural uses of the present day, like small-scale homestead farms that produce primarily organic food.

“The ordinance is a complete impediment to any economic activity. People need to be on their farms,” Moore said. “What are we waiting for? The rest of the world is going by.”

If approved by the group in a second reading, it would move on to the Planning Board and Conservation Commission for comment, then move on to the City Council for two readings. 

Levesque said that in the meantime, the city is scheduling two neighborhood meetings to discuss the proposed changes, aimed at engaging residents who don’t or can’t normally attend city meetings. 

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