AUBURN — After a summer off from the controversial subject, the City Council will hold a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Monday on proposed changes to the Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone.

The subject of loosening development restrictions in the large zone has divided Auburn officials and residents for years, and has continued as Mayor Jason Levesque has led the recent effort to modernize the regulations.

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, a threshold that is difficult to meet. While most agree these rules should be changed, officials are split on how.

Following the work of an ad hoc committee and initial discussions by the council, a draft ordinance was forwarded in February to the Planning Board and Conservation Commission for review.

The changes proposed would lower the standards to allow anyone with at least 3 acres to build a house, and would amend the definition of a farmer and dramatically ease the current income standard.

The agenda for Monday’s meeting gives the discussion 45 minutes, perhaps anticipating a back-and-forth between those who support the proposal and those who have reservations.

According to a memo to the council from Levesque about Monday’s workshop, it will include a “data-driven” presentation on the proposed amendments.

“The presentation will review the creation, history, and findings of various committees that have been created to review this zone in advance of further City Council workshops and eventual ordinance modification,” according to the memo.

As the agricultural zone changes have moved along, there has been a parallel effort to create an Agricultural Advisory Board, with officials split on what role it would have in regulating the zone. Creating a permanent board or commission was one of two final recommendations from a previous group that had worked with an outside consultant to study the zone.

According to the memo, members of the Planning Board and Conservation Commission are expected to make statements.

This summer, as the proposal was under review by the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, a Bates College survey of landowners in the zone was criticized by Levesque, who said the results would not be used by officials or staff because of an improper process. While Levesque asked for the survey to be pulled, the college went forward with the effort.

Also included in Monday’s memo is a letter from City Assessor Karen Scammon about the city’s process for land valuation in the zone. Levesque has often argued that the current regulations in the agricultural zone are keeping land values extremely low compared to other zones in Auburn.

According to Scammon’s letter, “any proposed changes to the use and/or zoning of land in the Agricultural Zone may warrant adjustments to the land values depending on what changes are made,” though she added that even if changes are not made, land values may be adjusted in the future “to maintain fairness and equity.”

“It is impossible from an assessing standpoint to predict what will happen in the market if the Agricultural Zone is opened up to development,” she said.


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