Imagine that your Grandfather gives you nine acres of land that has been in the family for generations so that, finally, you can start your organic, micro radish farm utilizing state-of-the-art hydroponic technology. You are ecstatic and start preparing a thousand-point to-do list. One of those points is to build a home on your farm so you can eliminate the commute and work more hours on your investment, only to find out that your land is in Auburn and … whoa. No farm dwelling (home) can be built if you have less than 10 acres.

Normally that rule would kill most start-ups, but you persevere and, after a few months, you manage to buy an acre of land from your neighbor to put you over the minimum acreage requirement. Along the way, you fall in love and marry the neighbor’s daughter/son. Extra bonus is she/he has a great job and income. When you apply for a building permit you are asked if your “family” will derive 50 percent of its income from agriculture. According to your business plan, and based on your spouse’s respectable income — which is now “family income” — you won’t. Can you build a home on your farm? No. After meeting hurdles at every step, you decide to quit and sell your land. But since the land has no value, no one will buy it (see above reasons).

Jason Levesque

Auburn loses out on a new economic venture and the joy of having a young family call Auburn home. The landowner is stuck with land they must maintain at their cost. But, at least, Gramps off-loaded the responsibility to another generation. As is said in the movies, “This story is based on true events.”

Why does something like that happen?

Blame those wealthy, land-owning men of 1964, who, using land use ordinances, effectively kept their property taxes low, minimized new farm competition and forced their neighbor’s land value to decrease so they could lease or buy land if needed, for pennies. All the while they guaranteed that their homes could be converted to non-farm dwellings and sold time after time for an inflated price.

But we can’t forget their partners at City Hall, who loved the idea of keeping 40 percent of the city of Auburn locked away as a form of “land bank” — one which they could access every time a new industrial park was to be built, or the airport expanded.  They would buy the valueless land from the all-too willing property owner, use city government to rezone the land into valuable industrial/business zone and then give or sell it for massive gain. That is “land banking,” and it is not fair.

Why should the situation bother the 90 percent of the people in Auburn who do not live in the “Ag Zone”?  Because you have been carrying the cost for 55 years. Yes, your taxes subsidized their roads, their kids’ schooling, their trash pick up. Their tax valuation is so low — they pay about $25 per acre per year — versus rural residential paying around $100 per acre, or about $300 an acre if you live in town. If the tax inequality is not enough reason to care, would you like more options for fresh local produce? How about attracting a new generation of vibrant entrepreneurs to Auburn? We are missing all these things and if we don’t act now, we will lose them forever.

As we continue to allow 20,000 acres of Auburn to sit dormant, the ability to utilize the land for agriculture diminishes. Currently, 74 percent of Auburn’s agriculture land — land that was historically cleared and used for agriculture — is now forest land. It will cost $5,000 to clear just one acre of land for agriculture. We are starting to get priced out of the very industry this ordinance was supposed to attract. The time to act was really 30 years ago when the city’s economy was stagnant and organic farming was taking off.

So, while we are late, there is still time to act by modernizing Auburn’s zoning so that we can attract new farmers, increase the tax base, lower land property taxes and, yes, still conserve land and open green space. Agriculture in Auburn can be made strong again, like it once was before greed got in the way.

Jason Levesque is mayor of Auburn.