“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams famously remarked during his defense of British soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials of 1770.

Facts can be ignored, rationalized, suppressed or distorted in the interest of political partisanship, business profit, or ideological zealotry, but they still persist in intruding on reality, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Why then is Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque so determined to disregard relevant facts that may be uncovered by an as-yet uncompleted Bates College survey relating to the city’s agriculture and resource-protection (often referred to as the “AG”) zone?

The purpose of the AG zone, according to the Auburn zoning ordinance, is “to allow for conservation of natural resources and open space land, and to encourage agricultural, forestry and certain types of recreational uses.” The ordinance contains a provision, dating from the 1960s, which restricts “uncontrolled growth” by forbidding construction of a new home on any property in the zone, unless the parcel covers 10 acres or more and at least half the total income of the occupants is derived from raising crops, livestock, poultry or dairying. Controversies about whether to liberalize the rule have been simmering for years.

Levesque is gung-ho about increasing development in the AG zone. Allowing “20,000 acres of Auburn to sit dormant,” he argues, prevents the city from attracting new entrepreneurs, impoverishes the municipal tax base and discourages use of undeveloped land for agriculture.

A year ago, Levesque appointed an eight-member ad hoc “action group” charged with drafting new ordinance language to address the minimum income and lot-size requirements of the current law.

The action group proposed changes which would allow a landowner to build a home if he had at least three acres and reported an annual income from, or investment in, agriculture of at least $1,000. It could be argued that this would set the threshold so low that AG zone properties could end up resembling upscale residential subdivision lots with an added backyard vegetable garden, copse of fruit trees or chicken coop. At the very least, it would permit greater housing and population density in the zone.

The proposed ordinance was preliminarily approved by the City Council last February and sent for review by the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, where it has since been the subject of considerable discussion and debate.

The Bates survey is being conducted without cost to the city by Prof. Francis R. Eanes, the idea having originated from his contacts with “numerous community organizations and individuals, including members of the Conservation Commission.”

Eames has described his survey as one developed “through a scientifically rigorous and collaborative process” to “systematically gather” information from AG zone owners for public use. The seven-page questionnaire seeks detailed responses about a wide range of facts and attitudes, from how owners currently utilize their property and what they’d like to do it with it over the next 10 years to what they believe makes the AG zone a desirable rural community and what changes in the zone they would consider desirable for the future.

Eanes is a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies. According to his faculty biography, he “teaches classes on urban environmental studies, urban and regional food systems, and community-engaged research.” These areas of expertise should prove helpful in crafting an approach that balances the needs of agriculture, environment, and development in an urban municipality that still contains substantial tracts of agricultural, forested and undeveloped land. And the survey’s purpose, to obtain data about the attitudes of some 800 property AG zone owners, is clearly relevant.

Last month, however, Levesque suddenly announced that the survey results would “not be used in any decision-making process by city staff, elected or appointed officials.”

The ostensible basis of Levesque’s objection to the survey was the city’s failure to comply with an ordinance requiring that the Conservation Commission “conduct research, in conjunction with the planning board, into local land areas” only after the research has been “initiated by majority votes of both the commission and the planning board.” The obvious solution to that procedural glitch would have been to call for a vote by the Conservation and Planning Board.

Instead, Levesque doubled down on his position, next claiming the survey results would be “tainted” because it was “conducted under false pretenses,” that “Auburn is not a petri dish that Bates can conduct social experiments in,” and that the “city cannot make policy decisions based on surveys conducted by biased, third-party groups.”

City staffers, scrambling to comply with Levesque’s dictum, met with Bates College officials, trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to persuade them to suspend the survey, even after Eanes agreed to remove any suggestion of municipal sponsorship from the survey report.

Levesque’s attacks on Eanes and his survey sound Trumpish to me. I’m not suggesting that Levesque is purposefully modeling himself after the president or that his position on the AG zone is without merit. However, President Donald Trump (along with former Maine Gov. Paul LePage) have so lowered the bar for political discourse in Maine that it has become acceptable to trash scientific and other evidence-based approaches to the formulation of public policy.

Nowadays, if an elected official doesn’t like (or even anticipates not liking) the message, all he has to do is shoot the messenger by casting doubt on his integrity, impartiality or ancestry.

And when that evidence happens to emanate from Bates College, it’s automatically suspect in the view of many local Republican politicians like Levesque. Androscoggin County’s GOP has come to think of Bates as akin to a communicable disease, threatening to infect the body politic with a progressive agenda, political correctness, and student participation in local voting.

With the Bates survey proceeding towards completion in the next few months, the only question is whether Auburn officials will consider its findings in deciding whether and to what extent to alter the AG zone. Levesque says no, but he doesn’t get a vote, and some members of the City Council, Planning Board and Conservation Commission have already voiced their belief that the study has value and should be taken into account in the decision.

When the survey is finished and published, Auburn’s decision makers would be wise to consider whatever “stubborn facts” it brings to light before setting a new policy direction that could have a lasting impact on the city’s land and other natural resources.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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