AUBURN — Despite a new proposal from city staff, the City Council appears no closer to an answer on how to ease building restrictions in the largest zone after another workshop Monday.

The topic, which has brought out clear divisions on how to move forward, appeared to frustrate city councilors and Mayor Jason Levesque on Monday as city staff hoped to pin down a consensus on the proposed zoning standards.

For years, the discussion in Auburn 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.

The recent effort led by Levesque has proposed easing those standards to allow landowners to build homes on their land and encourage small startup farms, but after much debate, the council cannot agree on how. While a workshop last week appeared to help officials find a middle ground, the council now seems further from a solution.

Some suggested the issue be referred back to the Planning Board. Others said due to the impasse, the city should simply wait until a new Agriculture Committee is formed. In response, Levesque said he may be planning more workshops.

For Monday’s workshop, city staff came up with a new proposal to lower the income standard from 50% to 40% of household income, or 40 percent of median household income for the city, whichever is less.

For example, with Auburn median income at $46,976, 40% would be $18,790.

City Manager Peter Crichton said the proposal is intended to make the income standard “more attainable under current economic conditions,” and that it “still requires a substantial commitment to farming.”

City staff said the previous proposal to use state guidelines, which define a farm as generating at least $2,000 in annual gross income, lowers the standard too much, and is “more likely to produce scattered housing,” which could make it “challenging to control costs.”

Crichton said the 40% threshold could be tapered down over time based on what happens.

Councilor Alfreda Fournier said she would like to see a number closer to 30%, while Councilor Belinda Gerry said she’d prefer to see a sliding scale based on the size of the farm.

Councilor Holly Lasagna said the council should go with recommendations of city staff.

“It needs to be a high threshold,” she said.

Levesque said the city should look into the average income of small startup farms and set the standards based on those numbers.

“We don’t want to set anyone up for failure right out of the gate,” he said.

But, Councilor Bob Hayes argued the state farm program could be used to ensure new farms are viable before permitting the farm to build a residence on the land.

Hayes said he’s concerned for someone meeting the standard, building a house and then the farm failing, leaving a new home.

“If we’re too lax, we’re going to get people showing an interest in farming just to build a house,” he said. “The threshold needs to be high to build a residence.”

Councilor Andy Titus told officials the city should simply leave the ordinance as it is rather than lower it to 40%. He doesn’t believe the 10% difference will change anything.

Following the extended workshop, Titus said it was apparent the issue had become too political, and that the council was not going to reach an agreement. He suggested that, instead of “wasting more time,” the council should allow the new Agriculture Committee to look at the issue.

“It’s become clear that it’s about those who want development, and those who don’t,” he said.

Lasagna told councilors they have not heard enough from farmers regarding the proposal, especially regarding the income standards.

“Tell me one time when a farmer has made any recommendation,” Levesque responded.

Someone from the audience yelled, “The (Agriculture) Committee was recommended.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.