AUBURN — A set of proposed zoning rules meant to modernize the largest land area in the city will move on to an official review process after receiving the go-ahead from the City Council.

With a 6-1 vote, the draft ordinance will be forwarded to the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and to officials at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, for review in what should be at least a 90-day process.

The controversial ordinance changes could usher in a new era for a zone that accounts for about 40 percent of the land in Auburn.

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

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

The changes proposed by Mayor Jason Levesque’s action group on agriculture would lower the standards to allow anyone with at least three acres to build a home, and would also amend the definition of a farmer and 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.

The proposal has received a fair amount of pushback from landowners who argue the changes could lead to unimpeded growth and much higher property taxes, and the process itself has also recently come under fire.

Levesque was previously criticized for establishing the action group after a previous group had worked with an outside consultant to study the zone and came 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.

The mayor’s action group, which last met Feb. 11, went through the draft ordinance line by line, but never took an official vote on the group’s recommendations during the three-hour meeting.

On Monday, the dissenting vote came from Councilor Belinda Gerry, who questioned the process so far. She pressed Levesque on why an official vote was never taken by the action group to recommend the ordinance language.

“When people started challenging this, when they said they didn’t like how it was written, the meeting was adjourned before people had a chance to look at it,” she said Monday.

In response, Levesque said the committee voted unanimously on the language earlier, though it was amended following. He said the action group process, “started derailing after that” and said he felt it was “important to get it out of that committee” to the Planning Board, where there are people who are formally trained in zoning issues.

“I think what happened was extremely important and a step that hasn’t happened in 55 years,” he said.

The vote was scheduled to be taken last on a lengthy council agenda Monday, but Councilor Andrew Titus made a successful motion to suspend the rules to take the agricultural zone discussion earlier.

Others, including Kathy Shaw, who served on the agricultural zone action group, said the city needs to consult with more people about the consequences of such changes.

“I’m not opposed to making changes, but I don’t think this current zoning ordinance is an appropriate method at this time,” she said.

Shelley Kruszewski, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said Monday that city officials should discuss the issue with as many agencies as possible, including the Maine Farmland Trust.

One resident who spoke said the city needs to amend the zoning language to allow people to build homes on their land and said a 90-day process is too long.

Councilor Bob Hayes, who supported the measure, said, “What we have to recognize is it is a draft,” adding that he expects the Planning Board to take a “careful look” at the proposal.

Hayes also said that a proposed agricultural commission should be in place before any changes are enacted.

In a workshop session prior to the meeting, councilors discussed the formation of a permanent board or commission, but it’s unclear what the board’s authority would be. The council agenda referred to it as an advisory board, which has no authority.

An alternative proposal forwarded by former mayoral candidate and attorney Adam Lee seeks to keep the city’s ordinance the same but would form a permanent agriculture commission in line with the previous committee’s recommendation. That commission, he proposed, could consider special exceptions in the zone on a case-by-case basis.

During the workshop Monday, Peter Crichton said it will be up to the council “to decide how much authority to give this board. There are people who feel strongly both ways.”

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