AUBURN — The City Council approved an expansion of the city’s residential “strip” zones Monday, a change officials say will give homeowners more flexibility with their land, but one that also brings up the debate over Auburn’s large agricultural zone.

According to a memo to the council from City Planner Megan Norwood, the city has a number of residential strips, primarily in northern and southern areas of Auburn that split parcels of land between two zoning districts.

Most property owners along the strips have a residence in the front of the property that is located in a residential zone, with the back portion of the property in the agricultural zone.

With a 4-2 vote Monday, the council increased the width of the strips by 300 feet, which according to Norwood, “will provide more buildable area for residential uses in these neighborhoods.”

The change increases the depth from 450 feet to 750 feet from the centerline of the roadway or the rear property boundary, whichever is less.

Mayor Jason Levesque said that when the depth was originally reduced, it made several existing lots nonconforming. He said the change was made on an “unfounded” argument that the strips would lead to cluster developments in the rural area.

Councilors Kate Boss and Belinda Gerry, both opposing the change, argued there needs to be a “broader conversation” about the future of the agricultural zone before the amendment is made.

Like other recent zoning amendments in Auburn, the change would allow a property owner to build a stand-alone secondary dwelling, or “in-law” unit on the property if it meets the standards.

“During the Comprehensive Plan process, we acknowledged the (agricultural) zone has issues we want to attend to and warrants a broader conversation,” Boss said. “I want to wait until we have that conversation.”

Levesque argued that while the rear acreage is zoned agricultural, it’s really “a backyard.”

Councilor Leroy Walker said he doesn’t believe there’s a valid reason for why the strips were previously reduced, adding, “It will allow people to use more of their land.”

According to the memo from Norwood, one of the reasons the strips were set to 450 feet was to prevent subdivisions such as one on Partridge Lane, which “essentially cuts off access to the back agriculturally zoned land.”

Levesque said the change amounts to “a bit of cleanliness” in Auburn’s zoning ordinances, and will give the city “a true reading for what we have for (agricultural) land.”

He said some nonconforming lots have a house in the agricultural zone, instead of the correct residential zone, which limits the homeowners’ ability to do “normal residential activities.”

When the council originally sent the zoning amendment request to the Planning Board, the board tabled a vote after several questions were raised.

One asked how the zoning amendment fits within the stated vision in the Comprehensive Plan.

An answer from staff said, “The council and (Planning Board) have made a significant inventory of walkability market house lots available with recent Form Based Code expansions. This is an attempt to offer additional Privacy Market Rural house lots in Auburn.”

Asked why officials were discussing the change now, prior to the Comprehensive Plan update review, staff responded, “We should not stop ordinance update progress supported by the (Comprehensive Plan) while we wait for the update process unless there is a good reason to do so. Existing and draft (plans) support greater flexibility in siting buildings in existing strip areas.”

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