AUBURN — Officials are slated to make decisions on two key zoning discussions this fall, before the current Auburn City Council term ends.

Mayor Jason Levesque said the council is set to hold votes in the coming weeks on an expansion of residential “strip zones” in the city and  as proposed amendments to a section of Auburn’s comprehensive plan on zoning, which recommends increasing density limits in most areas.

Both discussions have been key elements of the city’s push to confront a regional and statewide housing shortage, but have also sparked debates over whether the changes would be too much too soon.

Last week, officials hosted a public discussion on the strip zoning proposal, which was lightly attended. The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the issue in early November, with council action to follow.

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.

The proposal to expand the width of the strips by 300 feet has revived debate over Auburn’s large agricultural zone, but supporters, including Levesque, have said the change will provide more buildable area for residential uses in the neighborhoods.

The City Council voted 4-2 during a first reading in July, but the issue was sent back to the Planning Board level due to a technical error in the required 14-day notification for abutters, according to staff members.

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

The change would also allow a property owner to build a stand-alone secondary dwelling, or “in-law” unit on the property if it meets the standards, in keeping with several other changes the City Council has already approved this year.

Levesque said Wednesday the city recently received its first permit application for an accessory dwelling in the city’s low-density country residential zone. He said the owner is going to build an accessory dwelling on his lot, and sell the existing home to his son.

“One of the reasons for this change was to allow people to retire in place,” Levesque said.

Kathy Shaw, co-owner of Valley View Farm and chair of the Agriculture Committee, said she has heard from people who want the flexibility to add onto their property. But, she said, she has heard from more people who do not want the change and are concerned about potential long-term impacts, such as increased taxes and environmental impacts of additional development near the Lake Auburn watershed.

She said she would like to see a special exception that could allow, on a case-by-case basis, the ability for landowners in the strip zone areas to apply for additional dwelling units.

Also upcoming, the Planning Board and City Council are to vote on proposed amendments to the future land use section of the comprehensive plan.

Rather than doing a complete rewrite of the 2010 plan, the city has been working to update three sections: recreation and open space, transportation and future land use and zoning.

While the sections on recreation and transportation will see votes next week, the Planning Board is set to take up the zoning section Oct. 26, followed by council action in November.

The proposed amendments would overhaul the current zoning configuration, cutting the number of zones and increasing density limits in most. City staff members have said they have seen demand for increased housing options in an area that is low on affordable housing.

But even when the comprehensive plan is updated, the new zoning laws will not 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 could be a multiyear process.

Levesque said he would like to see the City Council finish its work on the zoning issues prior to the end of the term. The municipal election is set for Nov. 2, and a new City Council will be sworn in at the end of the year.

“This council has two years of legacy knowledge on land use discussions,” he said. “I’d hate to lose a potential majority of the council, then have to reset and start over. That’s not an efficient use of government time.”

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