Much of Auburn’s land is zoned agricultural, like this property on Hatch Road. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — A Bates College survey of landowners has put a tense debate over the future of the city’s agricultural zone back in the spotlight after Mayor Jason Levesque said involvement in the survey by members of elected boards violated the city charter.

In a surprise statement Monday, Levesque said the results of the survey, which is being conducted by Bates College professor Francis Eanes, “will not be used in any decision-making process by city staff, elected or appointed officials” because the Conservation Commission and Planning Board never voted to authorize city participation.

According to the city’s ordinance on the Conservation Commission’s powers and duties, the commission “shall conduct research, in conjunction with the planning board, into local land areas, which shall be initiated by majority votes of both the commission and the planning board.”

Levesque’s original statement misquoted the ordinance language, adding, “No land use research can be conducted without the majority approval of both the Conservation Commission and Planning Board.”

Levesque said Thursday that the survey’s process “raised a lot of questions” for him. Late last week, he and City Manager Peter Crichton and Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell met with Bates College officials and asked them to suspend the survey. According to Levesque, the college did not follow up with an answer.

Darby Ray, director of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College, who took part in the meeting, said city staff wanted Eanes to table the project, even after he agreed to remove any implication of city sponsorship from the survey. Ray added that Eanes “had no idea that such a vote was required.”

“Because any significant pause in the survey schedule could imperil the integrity of the data being collected, professor Eanes pressed for the city’s blessing to continue the survey process as originally scheduled, albeit without the introductory language the city objected to,” she said. “The meeting ended in a collegial spirit but with no resolution.”

The following Monday, Levesque issued his statement.

Jordan Tate, chairwoman of the Conservation Commission, defended members’ role in the survey process, saying this week that “an individual commissioner, on their own time, attended gatherings where the survey was discussed, along with other individual Auburn residents, and their involvement was misunderstood to be representative of Conservation Commission involvement.”

Tate said the Conservation Commission never voted or took any other action “to authorize ourselves to be a co-conductor of the land-use survey,” meaning “we are not involved in conducting this research and therefore not acting outside of our ordinance.”

The survey, and Levesque’s statement, came as the city is considering broad changes intended to modernize the zone, a process that has revealed divisions over how to oversee roughly 40 percent of the city’s land.

The zone consists of two large swaths in both the city’s southern and northern portions, bordering Lake Auburn in the north. The amended zoning language is intended to make it easier for people to build homes on land they own while encouraging small agricultural operations. But many, including the Conservation Commission, have argued it could have “unintended consequences.”

Since the 1960s, zoning laws have stipulated that 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. However, it has become increasingly rare for a household to obtain that threshold. Nearly all agree the rule needs to be changed, but they do not agree on how.

Those involved in the survey say its main purpose is to gather more accurate information from landowners, something that has been talked about, but not acted on, since Levesque’s ad hoc committee on agriculture drafted the basis of the ordinance changes earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Eanes, an environmental studies professor at Bates College, sent a statement to the Sun Journal describing the process behind the survey, arguing that as he’s followed the agricultural zone discussions he has seen a demand for more information from landowners.

Much of Auburn’s land is zoned agricultural, like this property on Hatch Road. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“Over the past six months I have been contacted by numerous community organizations and individuals, including members of the Conservation Commission, who are interested in understanding what Ag Zone landowners want to do with their land, and what’s most important to them as they think about the future of the Ag Zone,” he said. “Through a scientifically rigorous and collaborative process, we developed a survey that would systematically gather this information for public use. I’ve already heard from many landowners who are thrilled to have their voices heard on this important issue.”

The day before the meeting with Bates officials, Levesque sent an email to Eanes, saying that the land-use survey, conducted “with collaboration or knowledge and encouragement by certain members of both the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, constitutes a breach in our (city’s) charter at best, or at worst, a misuse of appointed position to further a specific political agenda.”

Levesque said Thursday that he was unsure what that agenda is, but he’s concerned that the survey’s makeup is limited to a small number of unknown collaborators seeking a specific result.

“It just seemed to me to be one-sided,” he said. “But I don’t want to argue about the merits of the survey itself. We have a process, and it’s important to how we operate as a city. I felt like I had to make a statement clarifying this.”

He said if the city were to sanction a landowner survey, he’d like to open it up to all landowners in Auburn.

A July 2 recommendation from the Conservation Commission on the proposed ordinance also argued for further research in the zone, and the establishment of an agriculture advisory board prior to considering ordinance changes.

Tate said the Conservation Commission this spring requested data from city staff in an attempt to identify how many landowners either have nonconforming lots or do not meet the income requirement, but commissioners were told by staff that the data do not exist and are difficult to come by.

“We felt this was critical information because if the (proposed) ordinance change would only help a small handful of landowners, perhaps this issue could better be addressed on a case-by-case basis by some special commission created for this zone,” she said. (Officials have also been debating this issue.)

Tate called the recent situation “an innocent misunderstanding, and cannot be construed as evidence of the Conservation Commission authorizing ourselves to be part of the survey.”

Eanes said a Bates College student research project on behalf of the Conservation Commission received high praise from those who attended a City Hall presentation in April. That project, titled “Land use changes and zoning alternatives in Auburn, ME,” did not come under scrutiny for not receiving official votes from the Conservation Commission and Planning Board.

The initial survey postcard sent to landowners in the zone states, “As you may know, the city of Auburn is currently debating changes that may impact the future of the Ag Zone. The Auburn Conservation Commission and Bates College are interested in hearing from you and all other Ag Zone landowners so that your voice can be included in the decision-making process.”

Eanes said he has since “edited the survey’s original introductory paragraph to clarify the survey’s origins and goals,” and welcomes “ongoing participation by interested landowners. Once the survey is complete, I look forward to being able to share the results with any groups, boards or commissions that are interested,” he said.

He said roughly 800 landowners are in the zone and that the postcard with a link to the online version of the survey was sent out first. A second wave of mailings was sent with physical copies of the survey, he said, with planned follow-up mailings based on the level of participation.

He said so far, he’s received between 150 and 200 responses.

Included in the survey are questions about how residents use their land, what they would like to use it for in the future, how the zone has changed, and what changes are needed. It also features a few open-ended questions, including, “What barriers prevent you from using your Ag Zone land to its fullest potential?”

The results have not yet been made public.