AUBURN — The City Council will continue to meet regarding the agricultural zone until it arrives at a solution.

That was the path set forward by Mayor Jason Levesque following a lengthy council workshop Monday, which showed clear divisions between elected officials over proposed amendments to Auburn’s Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone.

At the center of the issue is the proposed replacement of the zone’s restrictive “50 percent income” rule, which would require that landowners meet two of five criteria based on farming, forestry or conservation in order to build a home.

However, officials are split on the specifics of those criteria, and whether the proposal would open the land up to too much development, too quickly.

At the same time, some councilors said Monday that there must be a middle ground, which can give some relief to longtime landowners who have been unable to live on their land.

At the conclusion of the two-and-a-half-hour session facilitated by city staff, Levesque called for another workshop next Monday, Sept. 30, which will mark the third week in a row officials have discussed the issue.

While some councilors questioned whether staff or elected officials would have the appropriate amount of time to collect data or digest this week’s discussion, Levesque said, “All I keep hearing, is stall, stall, stall.”

Following the concerns about the back-to-back workshops, Levesque responded, “Duly noted. We’re still going to meet on (Sept. 30).”

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 has become increasingly difficult to meet.

The current proposal would maintain the 10-acre minimum lot size, but would create a provision to grandfather lots between 3 and 10 acres that were in place prior to Jan. 1, 2018. Initially, the city said that provision would apply to 10 developable parcels in the zone, allowing landowners to build accessory dwellings. On Monday, that number was adjusted to 37.

In all, counting 10-acre lots with appropriate road frontage that could be developed by meeting the proposed standards, there would be 136 lots immediately available for subdivision, according to a presentation Monday.

Under the proposal, that number would grow to hundreds more based on subsequent land splits over time, as long as the landowner was meeting the farm standards set in the ordinance.

Based on the numbers shown Monday, councilors said the farm standards need further scrutiny.

“There’s got to be something in the middle here,” Councilor Andy Titus said, referring to the proposal.

Councilor Bob Hayes suggested that officials look at the potential for breaking up the agriculture zone into two or three zones with varying criteria, prioritizing where to allow more growth. Others, like Belinda Gerry, said the city should be trying to develop and grow residential in existing areas, where there is already infrastructure in place.

Levesque responded later that “a lot of people run from the word growth,” arguing that “a couple dozen new farms” aren’t going to represent all the growth in the city, “but it will be a piece of the pie.”

There were also exchanges that questioned the overall intentions of the ordinance changes.

While Levesque said the proposal is not about “building cul-de-sacs,” and is about attracting people wanting to build a farm, Hayes pushed back, stating “it’s supposedly about farming, but it always comes back to housing. We’re disguising interests in growth and residential with farming.”

Councilor Holly Lasagna said that if the city truly does want to attract young farmers, the systems to support small startup farms “are not in place.”

While the mayor has urged the council to act as soon as possible, many have argued that the city should not act until a new agricultural advisory board is in place, or a Bates College survey of landowners is complete.

Many have pointed to the opinions of the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and the city’s legal review, all of which identified potential pitfalls in the ordinance language.

Other councilors, like Leroy Walker and Alfreda Fournier, said they’re more concerned with landowners who have been stuck with undevelopable properties.

“This should’ve been taken off the books a long time ago,” Walker said, regarding the 50 percent rule. “We need to … make a decision and get it over with.”

The council ended the workshop by recapping various “outcomes” they’d like to see from the process. Staff will have one week to put together another workshop.


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