AUBURN — The City Council gave initial approval to a series of controversial amendments to the city’s Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone on Monday, setting up a crucial final vote in one week.

The changes meant to modernize Auburn’s largest land area have been split into three sections, each receiving separate votes from the council. Two of the three sections passed first reading Monday, all with a 4-3 margin, symbolizing how the issue has split the council.

The discussion in Auburn over modernizing the zone has focused on zoning laws 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.

After months of debate, city staff and elected officials moved forward with a concept to lower the income standard in order to potentially allow more people to reach the threshold. The ordinance as proposed would lower the requirement to 30% of household income, or 30% of Auburn’s median household income, a number that some officials have continued to question, along with the intentions of the updated ordinance.

According to a city memo, the median Auburn household income is $46,976, meaning lots that generate at least $14,093 would qualify.

Generally, the ordinance pertains to parcels of more than 1o acres. The third vote Monday, on a section of the ordinance that would allow special exceptions to be made for lots of at least five acres, failed 4-3, but according to Mayor Jason Levesque, will receive a second reading next week.

Councilor Leroy Walker owns two parcels in the agricultural zone that would fit the 5-acre exception, and at least one councilor had previously pushed for Walker to abstain from voting on the section of the ordinance dealing with special exceptions for parcels under 10 acres.

Walker participated in all three votes Monday, along with Councilors Alfreda Fournier and Andy Titus in the failing vote on the special exception section.

Two weeks ago, the council tabled the initial votes on the new ordinances after the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission raised concerns for how the changes could impact the watershed. This week, the proposed language had excluded the watershed, meaning the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay district will remain under the current rules.

While some backed the decision to protect the lake, Kathy Shaw, an Auburn farmer on Sopers Mill Road, said Monday that the decision amounts to splitting the agricultural zone into two, something she said she has feared from the beginning.

“You’re going to make south Auburn the sacrificial lamb,” she said. “I appreciate that the lake is a unique entity, but so is south Auburn.”

During an earlier workshop, City Manager Peter Crichton said the city attorney and the watershed protection commission attorney worked together to draft the new language excluding the lake.

The Planning Board is scheduled to review the amended agricultural zone ordinances on Tuesday, and make recommendations back to the council.

On Monday, Dec. 9, the City Council will host a special meeting to take final readings on the ordinance.

For each of the votes Monday, Councilor Belinda Gerry urged the council to table the votes and instead refer the zoning work to a Agriculture Committee, which also received an initial go-ahead Monday.

Prior to each vote, Gerry criticized the council for rushing the process, which could lead to “unintended consequences.”

“We’ve tried to write ordinances about things we don’t know anything about,” she said. “It’s foolish to push forward.”

Councilors Holly Lasagna and Bob Hayes also voted against the changes, with Hayes at one point making a motion to increase the special exception threshold to more than six acres, which failed.

Lasagna repeated her previous concern over the 30% income rule, stating, “I’m still not sure what 30 percent is based on. Did we actually look at what farmers are making?”

Lasagna called the overall ordinance “a good start,” but said, “we’re not experts. Farmers are the experts, and we have not heard from them enough.”

The council also voted unanimously Monday in a first reading to create an Agriculture Committee, which would have the power under the ordinance to review farm plans from new farms, and make recommendations to the Planning Board.

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