Three of the six people who attended Wednesday’s community conversation at the Auburn Senior Community Center look at a slide while listening to Eric Cousens, Auburn’s director of Planning and Permitting, discuss some of the city’s long-range plans. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — No one can predict the future. But, in Auburn, during the tail-end of a pandemic that has driven a housing market frenzy, officials are trying to plan for it.

At the heart of those plans is a drive to simplify Auburn’s zoning ordinances and increase density in hopes of addressing a housing shortage that has caught up with the city. But as the process unfolds, some are asking how much is too much, and how the sweeping changes could transform Auburn’s unique balance of urban and rural neighborhoods.

The zoning discussions have taken place at a time when Auburn officials have already been considering policy changes to encourage housing growth, including expansions of the city’s form-based code district and a final reading this week on a change that will allow secondary standalone dwellings in most residential districts.

A small committee working to update the 2010 Comprehensive Plan could be finished by July, but the public process has just begun.

Rather than doing a complete rewrite of the 2010 plan, the City Council voted to update three sections: recreation and open space, transportation, and future land use and zoning. The plan will also include a new section on promoting food access and growing Auburn’s agriculture economy.

Over the past week, city staff has been looking for feedback on Comprehensive Plan proposals that could bring big changes to Auburn’s current zones, upping density limits and lowering setback requirements. Some areas could see density limits quadruple.

Meanwhile, some say the complicated planning process, coupled with the policy changes already occurring, is overwhelming at a time when the pandemic is still a barrier to public participation. Each of the city’s public discussions on the planning have been held in-person. A session on Tuesday saw less than 10 people. Thursday’s session had about 25.

Mayor Jason Levesque, who has led the charge for new housing, said the updates would “add simplicity” to Auburn’s zoning. He’s long argued that the city’s zoning rules have created “artificial scarcity” in the local housing market.

“Things get convoluted, they get overthought. They become protectionist,” he said of the city’s existing zoning. “Historically, (comprehensive) plans have come from a position of fear,” he said.

Auburn resident Becky Conrad listens Wednesday to long-range plans for the city during a community conversation with officials at the Auburn Community Center. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When asked about concerns over whether there could be unintended consequences from relaxing zoning standards too quickly, Levesque said, “if anything, people should be happy that the city recognizes that they’re paying taxes on that land, it’s their land that they purchased, and they’re going to be allowed to have more flexibility, as it should be.”

According to those involved, the general focus of the plan is to expand housing density in the city’s “urban core,” where city services and utilities like public water and sewer are already in place. The committee used current utility access to define the new proposed zoning, where “traditional neighborhood” is defined by having both public water and sewer, and “suburban residential,” the zone with the second-highest proposed density, is defined by having either public water or sewer.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said increasing density in areas where services are already in place is “a logical approach to growing our city.”

He said cities can either encourage growth in an existing core, or add residential zoning districts on the outskirts. So far, he said, the group “is really focused on expanding density where we already have services rather than expanding into the agricultural zone.”

Dana Staples, a Planning Board member who has served on the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee, said he began noticing at the Planning Board level that “it was pretty confusing” for both members and applicants to navigate Auburn’s zoning ordinances.

He said he came on board with the mindset of simplifying the zones. The proposal calls for cutting the number of distinct zones in Auburn down to 10 from more than 20.

Staples has also served on several other city committees, including the Zoning Board of Appeals. He said a “theme” he’s noticed during his time is what happens when older buildings are considered nonconforming in their current zone. The issue has led to Auburn’s push to use form-based code in urban residential areas, but he said it also led to the new zoning proposals, particularly around building setbacks and density.

Compared to traditional zoning, form-based codes focus more on the size, form and placement of buildings, and less on land use (residential vs. commercial) and density.

In order for higher densities to be achieved, he said, you need to be able to have housing closer to the street. The proposal calls for small setback requirements (10 feet from the road) in the downtown neighborhoods, which progress larger as the zones get more rural (20-25 feet).

“The idea is that the downtown is where you want to have the most dense development,” he said. “Then it kind of spreads out as you get up toward the (agricultural) zone.”

DRIVEN BY THE MARKET

Going into the Comprehensive Plan update, the city was already on a path of aggressively pursuing policy changes that could encourage housing growth. Last September, when the state was already seeing plenty of evidence of a boom in housing sales and prices, the City Council agreed to a six-month process to encourage new housing.

At the time, the push was labeled as necessary to combat a housing shortage and high demand that was driving up prices.

But even now, the market has shown no signs of slowing. In each quarter, Androscoggin County continues to see roughly 20% increases in units sold and housing prices compared to the year prior. At the start of 2020, the median home price in the county was $167,900. To begin 2021, it was $202,000.

Last year, real estate agents told the Sun Journal that there just isn’t enough available housing stock to meet the demand, especially as interest has begun to creep northward to escape the higher prices of southern Maine.

In September, officials said a preliminary analysis showed that existing services can withstand a population growth of 6,000 residents.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning & Permitting in Auburn, talks about the city’s housing plans for the future during a meeting Wednesday at the Auburn Senior Community Center where 6 people showed up to hear and weigh in on long range plans for the city that included everything from housing to roads, infrastructure, zoning and other plans that will impact citizens of Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Cousens said the changes could lead to various types of development, including in-fill development in vacant lots, redevelopment of existing buildings into two-family or multi-family apartments, or new development.

With the current state of the housing market, Cousens said staff receives inquiries about redeveloping existing lots or renovating to add units “multiple times a week, if not every day.”

“I think there’s a sense with the demand we’re experiencing, if we don’t provide some additional supply, we’re going to fall short on opportunities,” he said. “If we artificially restrict supply with zoning, it drives the prices up and makes housing in Auburn less accessible. So, to the extent we can increase the supply to keep it affordable, that’s the goal.”

He said the city has at least a half-dozen market-rate, multi-family developments in the development pipeline.

For the committee, Staples said the ability to encourage new housing was considered with “each one of these zones.”

This image compares a few existing zones with the proposed zoning updates, along with the proposed changes in density and setbacks. City of Auburn

But, according to those involved, leading the drive on housing has been Levesque, whose positions on the need for new housing, and Auburn’s current zoning ordinances, have been well-established.

Zoning has become a recurring theme during Levesque’s tenure, which began with the mayor wading into the thorny issue of Auburn’s agricultural zone.

While officials have put much of the focus on downtown development, the committee has also looked at potential areas where utilities could be expanded to allow for new housing development. Cousens said decisions would ultimately be based on public feedback and on which areas are ultimately the most cost effective.

So far, the agricultural zone is left mostly out of the proposed updates other than proposals for “strip zoning” a small number of rural areas where there is “an established pattern of residential uses along the road.”

At the root of Levesque’s push to reconsider Auburn’s zoning ordinances is his belief that they are “exclusionary,” and have ultimately created “artificial scarcity” by restricting new housing development at a time when the demand is at an all-time high.

Levesque has pointed to national trends in zoning that are moving to respond to the need for affordable housing. That includes a recent Biden administration proposal that would award grants and tax credits to cities that change zoning laws to bolster more equitable access to affordable housing.

In response to the Biden administration’s proposal, Julián Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, told USA Today that, “too often, zoning regulations trap low-income families, especially families of color, in segregated neighborhoods and price them out of housing opportunity.”

Some experts argue that by eliminating zoning restrictions, cities can encourage multifamily development that is more affordable.

In a recent social media post about the proposal, Levesque called Auburn’s current zoning “anti-growth” and “racist.”

Levesque said, “When you hear someone say they want to ‘maintain the character of our rural agricultural landscape’ through a continuation of our current zoning practices, ask yourself what they really want.”

When asked to expand on that this week, Levesque said some zoning harkens back to the practice of “red-lining,” when financial institutions limited mortgage loans and other services to certain geographic areas, typically with large minority populations. He said in Auburn, he believes some zoning was designed “to keep people out.”

‘NOT OPTIMISTIC FOR COMPROMISE’

While officials are hoping the updated Comprehensive Plan can lay the groundwork for “smart growth,” some residents are wary of stripping away regulations meant to put limits on development.

Barbara McGivaren, a Winter Street resident, said she was immediately skeptical upon hearing Levesque’s “state of the city” address last year, during which he called for Auburn to dramatically increase its housing stock by 2,000 homes.

She said her street, which is slated to become part of the city’s form-based code district, is already a high-traffic area. But, most of her concern lies with the city’s process so far.

McGivaren said that when Levesque, during his address, asked officials to remove zoning regulations, she saw it as a directive to “eliminate obstacles to development by hacksaw as opposed to scalpel.”

“Some might call this a bold move; I think it rash,” she said.

In the area of Court and Lake streets, Western Avenue, and outer Gamage Avenue, which is currently zoned Urban Residential, the proposal would rezone the area to Traditional Neighborhood, allowing a density of 16 units per acre. City of Auburn

McGivaren, and others, have also taken issue with the public process, which has unfolded as the area is still wrestling with a pandemic. She said the process should have begun with a citywide survey, with proposed updates based on the results, rather than the other way around.

This type of effort, she said, “would have eliminated the kind of confusion which now predominates, and a willingness to directly involve stakeholders would have spoken to the lack of ‘equity’ in housing that the mayor cited in his address. That would have required a relinquishing of control over the decision making, however, which rarely seems to be the mayor’s inclination.”

When it comes to the Comprehensive Plan, McGivaren said she’s “not optimistic for compromise.”

For City Councilor Holly Lasagna, hearing about confusion from the public led to an initial public feedback session. A week later, city staff called for three more sessions.

She said this week there “continues to be confusion about the zoning changes and how they affect, and are affected by, the Comprehensive Plan process that is occurring.”

She said while she appreciates the work city staff has put in to pull together the meetings, fact sheets and data, she wishes there had been more community input earlier in the process.

“The last time this process took place there was a lot more time spent on getting community input from all sectors, not just those who are able to attend a night meeting, in person, with a week’s notice while Androscoggin County is currently designated yellow in terms of COVID,” she said.

Pam Larouche, who wrote a recent letter to the Sun Journal concerning the secondary dwelling issue, said she’s not sold on the merits of cutting the number of zones in the city by half.

“Why is it such an advantage to bring the number of zones down to ten if it means dragging the downtown density into residential areas, areas where people bought homes precisely because there was more space,” she said.

Former City Councilor Andy Titus, who was wary of zone changes as an elected official, has been weighing in on social media.

During a recent discussion about the secondary dwelling proposal on an Auburn community Facebook page, he said “I have always been nervous about zoning changes like these. Maybe a land owner wants to back fill their lot with a rental building, but do neighbors want to look at these structures? If it is in my backyard, it does affect my neighbor.”

When asked about potential unintended consequences from the effort, officials said they’ve considered the downsides.

Cousens said there’s never a guarantee that housing costs can remain where they’ve been in the past. He said increasing supply “certainly helps, but it doesn’t solve the entire problem.”

Levesque argues that the proposed updates are “really a belief in the individual’s ability to make good decisions, not just for themselves, but for their neighbors.”

The city should “protect what makes Auburn great and unique,” while “still respecting the individual from either a business or residential standpoint,” he said.

‘IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN OVERNIGHT’

For those worried that the updated Comprehensive Plan — and all of its proposed zone changes — would suddenly come down like a hammer, there is some consolation.

First, the proposed updates to the plan, particularly around zoning, have not yet been finalized.

Cousens said the series of community conversations being held into next week are meant to help residents better understand how the changes would impact them. During the meetings, staff have set up multiple work stations and are offering one-on-one sessions.

Following the first meeting on Tuesday, which only saw about six people show, Cousens said attendance hasn’t been what officials hoped. Thursday’s session, with about 25 people, was better.

The last of three planned sessions will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at the Auburn Senior Community Center. An online survey has seen more engagement, with about 40 responses so far, Cousens said.

He said councilors need to know how the public feels before they make decisions on “where to change and how much to change.” That especially applies concerning density, he said.

The area of Stevens Mill Road, currently zoned Suburban Residential, is proposed to move to Traditional Neighborhood, which would allow a density of 16 units per acre. The current density is 4 units per acre for single-family homes, and 6 units per acre for two-family homes.

“There’s no exact right number. It’s what do people want, what can they live with on their neighbor’s property when they have expectations about their neighborhood,” he said.

Cousens said he “fully expects” there will be changes made to the proposal following feedback from the public.

“My goal now is to take the input from the public and make this better,” Staples said.

The city has created an online hub for the proposed Comprehensive Plan updates, with mapping tools that allow residents to compare existing zones to those proposed.

Following the results of the public meetings and survey, the Planning Board is scheduled to review the language and conduct a public hearing on June 8. The board will also make a recommendation to the City Council on whether they support the language or what changes the board feels should be made before it is finalized.

A City Council public hearing and first reading is slated for June 21.

But, even when the Comprehensive Plan is ultimately updated, the new zoning laws won’t automatically take effect. The plan is considered a guiding document for officials, meaning each proposed zone change would have to be separately considered and implemented by the Planning Board and City Council in what Levesque said could be a multi-year process.

The 2010 Comprehensive Plan called for an increase in the types of zoning in Auburn, but many of the proposals were not used. According to officials, however, about 70% of the strategies from the 2010 plan were ultimately implemented.

Levesque said since the plan is simply a guide for officials to work from, “the real work” will begin once it’s implemented.

“Just because you change the zoning, it doesn’t mean everything is going to change instantaneously,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that way. Things still have to go through the normal approval process. It’s not going to be the wild, wild west, but it does recognize that people want things easy to understand and they want flexibility.”


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