AUBURN — Rules governing the city’s Agriculture and Resource Protection zone, recently amended after a tumultuous, monthslong debate, are set to go into effect Wednesday.

The updated ordinance is meant to loosen restrictions, lowering an income standard used to define who can build a home there.

But, despite the relaxed ordinance, city staff is not expecting a rush of activity as the new rules become law next week.

Eric Cousens, deputy director of Economic and Community Development, said there is a 30-day appeal period following the passage of a new ordinance. With the City Council passing a final reading of the ordinance Dec. 9, it will be effective Jan. 8, he said, barring any formal appeals.

He said the City Clerk’s office recently had a discussion with a resident about a potential appeal — a petition to change a piece of the ordinance — but one has not been submitted.

In the meantime, he said, city staff is not bracing for a lot of new building permits.

The ordinance stipulates that in order to build a new home, a landowner must own at least 10 acres and make 50% of household income from farming, forestry or other agricultural uses.

On Jan. 8, the income standard will be lowered to 30% of household income, or 30% of Auburn’s median income, whichever is lowest, while still requiring 10-acre parcels to build a home. Another section of the ordinance will allow the Planning Board to grant special exceptions for landowners with at least 6.1 acres to build a home, as long as they meet the income requirement and further criteria.

On Thursday, Cousens repeated what many city officials have called the new ordinance: an incremental step and compromise.

“We know that there’s a little bit of a lower bar to be able to build a home, incomewise, but it’s still tied to a strong agricultural standard,” he said. “I don’t anticipate a big rush on permits or anything like that.”

Cousens said on average, he expects landowners to have to report roughly $14,000 in farming-related income in order to build.

According to a city memorandum, the median Auburn household income is $46,976, meaning lots that generate at least $14,073 would qualify.

Cousens said he is preparing more to staff the new Agriculture Committee, which was approved by the council alongside the new ordinance, as a way to oversee issues in the zone that accounts for roughly 40 percent of the city’s land mass.

The new committee would make recommendations on special exceptions, based on a list of criteria, including that the applicant provide a feasible farm business plan.

Mayor Jason Levesque said Thursday he had not heard of anyone intending to apply for a permit once the new rules are in place.

“It’s still excessively restrictive and I only expect a few new farms,” Levesque said. “But that’s a start.”

Cousens said if his department receives a small number of applications, it will be able to absorb the work.

“It’s not like we’re changing how we do business or anything,” he said. “We’ve had some inquiries but some people are happy with the change and some people wish it didn’t happen. We haven’t had any serious inquires where we’re expecting permit applications on the day the appeal period expires.”

Throughout the debate over the proposed ordinance changes, a number of landowners in the zone argued the new rules would lead to unintended consequences, and promote building new homes more than supporting Auburn’s existing farms.

It received attention from the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, whose recommendations went a long way toward the final “compromise” ordinance, as well as the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission and researchers and filmmaking students at Bates College.

In the final days of negotiations, the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay district was removed from the area affected by the ordinance after a number of people argued against the potential impact of added development in the watershed.

Cousens said while there has not been anyone requesting a permit yet, he is slated to meet with a resident this week who is concerned with the potential for new development on abutting properties.


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