AUBURN — The City Council inched closer Monday night to a solution to easing development standards in the city’s agricultural zone, while appearing to move away from the zoning ordinance overhaul that had been previously proposed.

During another lengthy workshop that included comments from more than a dozen landowners, councilors arrived at consensus on at least two critical items that have been debated for months.

For years, the discussion has focused on zoning laws in the Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone that stipulate that in order to build a new home, 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.

While a proposal drafted by a previous committee led by Mayor Jason Levesque attempted to solve both the income and acreage requirements, the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, a legal opinion and a number of landowners have argued the proposal could lead to unintended consequences.

On Monday, councilors appeared to prioritize fixing what many have said is the biggest issue in the zone: Longtime landowners who cannot build a house on their land due to the restrictions.

In response to concerns from the public, many of which were repeated with passion Monday, the council set up two additional workshops to tackle specific pieces of the zoning ordinance.

First, on Oct. 7, the council will hold a workshop on amending the definitions used for a farm and farmer to conform to the state’s definition. The previous proposal from Levesque listed a set of criteria a landowner had to meet in order to be able to build a home, including a much lower income standard.

Councilor Bob Hayes suggested Monday that the city use the state’s definition, which, among other standards, defines a farmer as having a gross revenue of at least $2,000 annually.

Then, on Oct. 21, the council will hold a joint workshop with the Planning Board to discuss how to relax the current restrictions for properties between 3-10 acres. Many on the council reached a consensus Monday that the city could create some mechanism for landowners of nonconforming lots between 3 and 10 acres to go to the Planning Board to request a variance or special exception.

In this scenario, councilors agreed, the Planning Board and/or a newly-formed agricultural committee could make a recommendation, which would go to the City Council for final approval.

“It’s clear that this is so complicated we can’t make a broad ordinance that covers everything,” Councilor Andy Titus said. “Everyone gets the same equal chance, but you have to go through the process. It might be the answer.”

Levesque said part of the review process could be requiring a “viable farm plan and approval of abutters.”

On Oct. 8, the Planning Board is also scheduled to discuss the parameters of the agricultural committee, which has been a repeated recommendation during the process.

The consensus Monday represented the first clear movement on the proposed ordinance changes, as city officials have come under increased scrutiny from residents. Following the meeting, Levesque said the council had come a long way as a result of the consecutive workshops.

A number of landowners Monday said the process has appeared rushed and could permanently alter Auburn’s rural nature along with vital natural resources and habitat areas.

Jane Costlow, a Conservation Commission member, said Auburn has been “visionary” in its ability to keep conserved land due to the longstanding restrictions.

Costlow, like many Monday, said the proposed amendments could increase sprawl, and the city should instead focus growth in the urban core.

However, landowner Rodney Hill, who said he owns 90 acres, believes Auburn’s development restrictions have “compounded sprawl” in surrounding communities such as Minot. He said he would like it if one of his sons could eventually build a house on the land.

“The sprawl has just gone elsewhere,” he said.

Under the previously proposed amendments, 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.

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

Landowner Michelle Melaragno questioned why the city appeared to be rushing to come up with a solution, especially as the Nov. 5 election nears.

Another resident said the process, with Levesque scheduling weekly meetings, has been “a bullying tactic,” designed to make the council “tired of hearing of it, and ready to move on.”

Chris Carson, who served on the previous mayor’s committee, urged the city to make the agricultural zone planning part of the 2020 comprehensive plan process. The city is required by charter to create a new comprehensive plan every 10 years. The last plan was rolled out in 2010.

Peter Moore, who owns land of Jordan School Road, has previously argued in favor of changes in line with Levesque’s previous proposal. He said Monday the need to reform the zone is “an issue of fairness.” He said it is not fair people can live in houses built on property prior to 1964, while not working in agriculture, when all others are held to the requirement.

“It’s a blatant form of discrimination,” he said.

Fred Holler, who owns 39 acres, said he favors “some mechanism where farmers can give a piece of land to a family member to build on, but said there’s a lot more at stake.

“This has opened up a Pandora’s box,” he said.

Levesque later responded to the concerns about a “rushed process.”

“It’s about working the issue until it is solved,” he said. “By doing something, often when it’s timely, you don’t take steps backwards.”

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