AUBURN — A Bates College survey of landowners in the city’s Agriculture and Resource Protection zone found that most agree on what makes the area a desirable place to live, with most ranking housing development near the bottom of the list.

But the results, with some mixed messages, don’t mark a clear path forward for officials who have spent months debating the future of the zone that accounts for 40% of the city’s land.

And as a local election nears, the issue has been amplified on the political level.

The survey, conducted by Bates College professor Francis Eanes, was rolled out this summer, eventually polling 315 out of the 772 landowners in the zone. During a presentation to the City Council on Monday, Eanes said the high response rate “speaks to the great interest Auburn landowners have in the broader conversation.”

Eanes told the council that his survey, which became controversial nearly from the outset, was meant to “take a step back” from the issues the council has been debating and ask its residents what they value in making land-use decisions.

In a section of the survey that asked landowners to rank what makes a “desirable rural community,” a majority of respondents agreed on nearly every option. Among those ranked of highest importance are “Farming/forestry practices that keep the area’s water clean,” “keep property values stable,” “keep property taxes low,” “prevent industrial development on family farm/forest land,” and “the ability to pass on land to the next generation.”

“It’s atypical to see this kind of consensus for this many items,” Eanes said.

In that same section, 63% said that “preventing housing development on family farm/forest land” was either important or very important, while 27% said it was only slightly important or not important at all.

A similar question that asked whether selling land for residential development was desirable, 69% said it was undesirable.

Housing has been at the center of the debate over the zone and came to the forefront again Monday. Recently proposed amendments were designed to loosen the historically strict building restrictions there while promoting small startup farms, but many have argued the conversation has been a veiled attempt to clear the way for housing and boost city tax revenue rather than promote agriculture and resource protection.

At the same time, due to the strict rules, many have said they can’t build a home on land they own because they do not meet the income restrictions. That also came through in the study.

Asked what landowners want to do with their land in the future, 41% said “build a home for you and/or your family” was either very desirable or desirable, while 36% said the opposite.

Ninety-five percent of respondents said the majority of their income comes from non-farmland sources.

In a summary, Eanes said tension exists between what individuals want to do with their land, and what they’d like to see happen in the zone overall.

But, he said, the results show “significantly more consensus than disagreement across groups.”

While councilors were generally supportive of the work, Councilor Alfreda Fournier questioned why the survey wasn’t expanded to the entire city, rather than just the agricultural zone.

Fournier, like Mayor Jason Levesque, has routinely argued that Auburn taxpayers in other residential zones are “subsidizing” landowners in the agricultural zone by paying more in taxes.

“We all pay taxes here, and we have opinions too,” Fournier said.

Agricultural zone land is typically taxed lower than residential zones in the city because its market value is much lower. The tax rates across the city are uniform.

In response to Fournier, Eanes said the survey was designed for landowners in the agricultural zone because there has been a consistent theme for the past few years that officials “need to hear more from farmers and agricultural zone landowners.”

City Councilor Holly Lasagna told Eanes that Auburn is “incredibly lucky we have this resource,” and that the survey is “bringing a perspective to the work we’re doing that we wouldn’t get otherwise.”

She added that the results will help the yet-to-be-formed Agriculture Committee “look more holistically about the future of the (agricultural) zone.”

“I appreciate the time you took. It was worth the fight of trying to get you here,” Councilor Belinda Gerry said.

During a subsequent public comment period, former Councilor Adam Lee argued that the current proposals to amend the zone are “designed to create housing.”

“Do not substitute farming for housing,” he said.

Joe Gray, who is running for mayor against Levesque, told councilors they were “conflating a lot of issues here.”

“This is not about farming,” he said, also pushing back against the argument that taxpayers are subsidizing the agricultural zone.

“It’s just not true. Everything is market driven,” he said. “The only way you subsidize a farm in Auburn is to buy its goods.”

The City Council continued its discussions on the agricultural zone during an earlier workshop Monday, and is set to continue next week.

While the city has put forward a proposal to change the income standard to a lower, “incremental approach,” there was not much consensus among councilors.

Following a presentation on character-based code, which would allow the city to dictate design standards but not dictate how land is used, Levesque spoke in favor of the new approach.

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