Bates College professor Francis Eanes talks about his research last year on Auburn’s agricultural zone during Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — There was at least one big takeaway from Auburn’s recent attempt to modernize its agricultural zone: the area has been an outlier in a region that has seen thousands of acres of farmland lost to development.

A key player, perhaps unintentionally, in the city’s recent discussions over land-use planning has been Bates College professor Francis Eanes, whose 2019 survey of residents in the agricultural zone became controversial among city officials, but could help steer the work of a new Agriculture Committee.

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Eanes told a Great Falls Forum audience Thursday that between 2012 and 2017, 1.15 million acres of farmland in Maine was either lost or converted to other uses, a number that represents roughly 10% of all agricultural land in the state.

He said the numbers follow trends in New England and nationwide as agriculture has grown in scale and specialization, become more corporatized, and as cities see more competing land-use pressures.

During that same period, and dating from the 1960s, Auburn’s Agriculture and Resource Protection zone, which accounts for some 20,000 acres, has largely stayed the same thanks to an unusually strict ordinance.

Until recently, it stipulated that in order to build a home, the landowner needed to have at least 10 acres and receive at least 50% of income from farming.

A new ordinance, passed by the council in December, lowers the income requirement to 30%, or 30% of area median income, 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.

Bates College professor Francis Eanes talks about his research last year on Auburn’s agricultural zone during Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

During the forum Thursday, Eanes laid out some key findings from his research that polled 315 landowners in the zone, and how it might inform the city’s future discussions.

The question on a lot of minds Thursday was whether the new ordinance governing the zone will help or hurt Auburn’s chances to bolster farming and other uses of open land.

One participant asked Eanes if the ordinance remains overly restrictive, perhaps driving away new potential residents.

His response highlighted national trends that suggest young families and millenials prefer more dense, walkable, urban areas or suburbs that are more directly tied to cities, and that studies show focusing new development in urban areas is more cost effective.

On the other hand, he said, an income-based ordinance could limit more modern agriculture movements like immigrant and refugee farmers, and cooperative or incubator farms. He said cities should be thinking creatively about solar, biomass and other ways to support “viable land-based livelihoods” other than farming.

Eanes said that while many trends are troubling for agriculture — including a median age of farmers that’s hovering around 60 — Maine is among the only states seeing an uptick in new farmers.

During his initial presentation to the council, and again Thursday, he said the survey results showed more consensus among landowners than was previously thought.

In one section, 63% said “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.

Other takeaways shared Thursday was that a majority of respondents said it is important to them to pass on their land to future generations, as well as consensus that Auburn should concentrate residential and commercial development in its urban core, not in the agricultural zone.

The decision, he said, to take land away from agriculture or other related uses and put it toward residential or commercial development has much more “permanent implications,” meaning the land will likely never go back to agriculture.

Ask for a “status report” on what the new City Council is doing in regard to agriculture, Councilor Katie Boss said it has not had the opportunity to discuss agriculture yet.

“Many were happy to see the door close on the Ag Zone conversation before the new term started,” she said. “But, I’m really grateful to have the survey results and data at our disposal as we go forward and talk about the Ag Zone.”

In response to questions over whether a new Edward Little High School will lead to a need for more residential development, Councilor Holly Lasagna said Auburn has “plenty of opportunity for young people to come in and buy property that currently exists, either in the downtown core or right around it, without having to spread out and build new in the Ag Zone.”

During the first portion of the forum, when Eanes shared photos of well-known former farms that have since been developed, some Auburn residents immediately recognized them.

Eanes said one is now the site of Central Maine Community College and other residential and commercial development.

“And that’s where Starbucks is,” one resident said.

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