AUBURN — An update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan would restart talks with the state in hopes of building a new turnpike exit between South Main Street and Riverside Drive.

The long-discussed interchange was initially put to rest about a decade ago, but officials working on Comprehensive Plan updates say the new exit would help address several long-term goals, including establishing Riverside Drive as Auburn’s southern gateway, and providing additional access to areas of the community where “sustainable growth” is planned.

A 2010 study found that the interchange wouldn’t address traffic congestion in the downtown enough to warrant public funding, but officials said Monday that a second Auburn exit off Interstate 95 — Exit 77 — could help Auburn facilitate better access and traffic flow in and out of the downtown area.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said a new exit could lessen the amount of traffic on the Washington Street corridor that stems from Exit 75, possibly allowing the city to reconfigure traffic patterns to slow traffic and encourage more businesses along Washington Street north.

Traffic moves along the Maine Turnpike near exit 75 in Auburn in December 2019. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal 2019 file photo Buy this Photo

“We can’t move (traffic) slowly unless we provide another way downtown, and a second exit helps us facilitate that,” he said.

Jeremiah Bartlett, a member of the Comprehensive Plan review committee and the L/A Complete Streets Committee, said while the state has previously argued that traffic volumes in the area are not high enough, the city could argue that the available capacity at the location would allow for “sustainable development,” with the city taking advantage of existing infrastructure.

The update would require planning between the city, the Maine Department of Transportation, and the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Overall, the updates focused on transportation are meant to address safety and volume along major travel corridors, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access, “especially in key areas where it is currently very dangerous if you’re not in a car,” Bartlett said.

The discussion on transportation was just one of three topics presented by the Comprehensive Plan review committee Monday.

Also discussed were new proposals for future land use and zoning updates that would strip down zoning ordinances while loosening density and setback restrictions. Staff had just finished the presentations Monday, and they were not included in the City Council agenda packet.

The proposal would streamline Auburn’s zones down to 10 from more than 20, and increase density limits aimed at encouraging new housing.

Dana Staples, chairman of Comprehensive Plan review committee, said the goal from the outset was to “simplify everything.” Staples worked with Mayor Jason Levesque and Councilor Tim MacLeod on the committee’s proposal.

A side-by-side comparison of the proposed update was shown to councilors, which laid out the recommended density limits.

For instance, the urban residential zone, which allows for four single-family homes or six two-family structures per acre, would become “traditional neighborhood,” allowing for a density of 16 units per acre. Setbacks would also be reduced.

The suburban residential zone, keeping the same name, would go from a cap of two homes per acre to eight.

Cousens reminded officials that the joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Board was “just step one in the process.”

He said city staff has been receiving numerous phone calls and emails about the proposals, along with some criticism about a lack of outreach to this point. At a recent public discussion at the Auburn Senior Community Center, he said residents saw the proposed zoning maps and “felt that they were final.”

In response, officials supported a plan Monday to hold three additional community conversations in separate areas of the city, as well as conducting an online survey of residents.

Cousens said he and other staff have been receiving a large number of emails with questions, and that a survey would allow staff to organize feedback in a “central location.”

Levesque said the work is on track to be “wrapped up” by July 1. However, the process must include Planning Board hearings on the updates to each section, a recommendation to the council, a state review, and two readings at the council level on top of the public feedback process.

Members of the public can follow along with the Comprehensive Plan review committee proceedings by going to the city’s website, or by clicking here.

This image shows a side-by-side comparison of the residential zones in Auburn and changes proposed by the Comprehensive Plan review committee.

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