AUBURN — A proposed agriculture committee and its potential authority on land use decisions was the subject of scrutiny during a joint City Council and Planning Board workshop Monday.

The new committee is the result of a long effort to study the city’s agricultural zone and modernize the zoning ordinance, but the decision on how the committee should be framed — and what authority it should have — has been debated for months.

A small group of officials recently drafted an ordinance establishing the committee, but during the joint workshop Monday, some disagreed with its scope.

That included Mayor Jason Levesque, who has long been critical of establishing an agriculture committee, arguing that it would allow members of a specific industry to regulate their own matters.

Levesque was criticized last year for establishing an ad-hoc action group on agriculture in Auburn 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.

According to the draft ordinance, the committee’s purpose is to “proactively review city policies, practices and ordinances to build a stronger food, agricultural and resource economy in Auburn and to address the ongoing needs of protecting farms, farmland, natural resources, forestry businesses and woodlots.”

Among the listed duties of the committee is to “make recommendations to the Planning Board and City Council and consult with the Conservation Commission regarding the ongoing needs of protecting farms … and building a stronger food, agricultural and resource economy in Auburn.”

However, the point of contention Monday was a proposal to allow the committee to “adjudicate special permission consistent with its authority pursuant to” the newly updated agriculture ordinance that has not yet been enacted.

Asked for clarification, Eric Cousens, deputy director of economic and community development, said that could mean that the agriculture committee would have the authority to determine whether the land in a proposed project meets the definition of a farm under the ordinance.

“We already have committees that look at that,” Levesque said, referring to the Planning Board.

He later added that he’s worried about the agriculture zone “being governed by its own town council.”

Councilor Holly Lasagna, who was part of a working group with city staff to come up with the committee ordinance, said the committee’s decisions would only be a recommendation to the Planning Board, and that the primary goal of the group would be to promote agriculture in a zone that accounts for roughly 40 percent of the city’s land.

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. Much of the recent effort has focused on how to effectively eliminate the “50 percent” rule that keeps people from being able to build a home on land that they farm.

“If you look overall, its purpose is to promote healthy agriculture in the city,” Lasagna said. “This proposed group would come up with recommendations to give you on complex issues.”

Evan Cyr, Planning Board chairman, asked for time for the Planning Board to have its own discussion on the committee.

“If it’s meant to help us, it’s important for us to look at it,” he said.

Many said the council needs to get a firm handle on its goals for the zone. Does it want to see more farming or does it want more land to be protected from development?

“I thought the goal was to help sustain existing farms and encourage new, young people to get into farming,” Councilor Belinda Gerry said. “Food insecurity is a big problem.”

Cyr said that, speaking as a citizen, the zoning of agriculture and resource protection, which are now one in the same, should be “decoupled.” Some land should be zoned for agriculture and some for resource protection, he said.

What everyone agreed on Monday was that the two bodies should hold more joint workshops.

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