This aerial view shows the property at 555 Court St. in Auburn on Friday as well as some of the neighborhood around outer Court Street, left, that could be rezoned to allow higher housing density and more commercial uses. Sixty apartment units in five buildings are being proposed for the site. The city’s rezoning effort would affect many other Auburn neighborhoods. Auburn Middle School can be seen in the background. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — An ambitious rezoning of the city’s core residential area could be delayed Monday after a legal review found complications, but officials will have at least three options for moving the effort forward.

The proposed rezone of the 1,687-acre area, which is part of a larger city effort to encourage a greater variety of housing types, has proved controversial with area residents who are concerned that new multiunit housing and commercial uses will increase traffic and problems, and decrease the quality of the largely single-family neighborhoods.

After the council passed an amended version of the zoning last week, a legal review by the city’s attorney recommended against voting on a second reading of that version when the council gathers at a special meeting Monday.

Instead, the review found that from a legal perspective the council should either pass the original version or create an entirely new zoning district based on the amendments made last week, which would require additional Planning Board review and a hearing.

Another option would allow the council to update the zoning in just a small section of the area originally proposed, though that option is not recommended by staff. After a council request, an example provided by city staff was included in Monday’s agenda packet, showing a section of land surrounding Auburn Middle School that is tied to a recent development proposal.

The coming discussion Monday depicts the complications officials now face related to the immense public feedback received on the proposed changes.


One such complication: Staff said passage of the amendments would also change the zoning rules already in place in other areas of Auburn. Residents in those areas were not notified of the proposed changes, which is a requirement.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said he believes the changes put forward by the council last week “were done with the intent of trying to make it more accommodating and accepting to the public feedback that they received,” adding, “We learned a lot from the public feedback about how to make it better.”

But, he said, the changes were deemed substantive enough that staff believes the issue should go back to the Planning Board.

People play ball in the street on Davis Avenue in Auburn Saturday, one of the neighborhoods in the proposed rezoning area. Sun Journal staff photo


The zoning type, called “T-4.2” or traditional downtown neighborhood, would affect sections of Court, Lake and Turner streets; and Park, Western and Gamage avenues. (See map.)

A City Council memo describes the zoning type as “small- to medium-sized buildings with smaller front yards and stoops in a more compact urban environment, and includes traditional neighborhood-sized storefronts.”


It also states the zoning is meant to foster “more private and public realm interaction.”

Under the amended proposal put forward by Councilor Ryan Hawes, the scale of allowed housing density and commercial uses was lowered, bringing the allowed density to 14 units per acre, compared to the original proposal of 16 per acre, and making several types of commercial uses allowed only with a special exception from the Planning Board.

A lot of public feedback received by the council and Planning Board has centered on the introduction of commercial uses in the areas, which are currently not permitted.

The amended proposal would limit office, service and retail uses to a 1,500-square-foot footprint, and must have an upper-floor residential unit. The list of commercial uses that would require a Planning Board special exception includes bed and breakfast establishments, elderly and child care facilities, residential facilities and boarding houses, professional offices, personal services, general retail and more.

Restaurants with up to 30 seats would also require a special exception, with more than 30 seats not permitted.

In all, staff said, the changes would necessitate the creation of a new zoning district. On the agenda for Monday, it is referred to as “T-4.2B.”


The city began moving toward “form-based code” after the 2010 Comprehensive Plan, eventually adopting a form-based code framework in 2016. The city lists a number of form-based code types, including two aimed at urban residential neighborhoods and two aimed at downtown centers.

Originally, the city’s proposed use of T-4.2 was limited to only a small area of downtown Main Street and along the river. But, the updated Comprehensive Plan recommends a series of zoning changes based on encouraging new housing, starting with the more urban areas that have city utilities.

Cousens said it wasn’t “intentional” by the council, but the amendments proposed last week would also affect the small neighborhoods in New Auburn and along the river that already have the T-4.2 zoning.

“We don’t want there to be textual changes that apply to the T-4.2 district as a whole because there are other areas of the city where it exists, and those residents were not informed,” he said.

During last week’s meeting, several councilors and residents urged the council to send the proposal back to the Planning Board. That included former Councilor Bob Hayes, who believes the city should split the area into at least two or more zoning types.

In an email to councilors, he said, “The proposed code change for outer Court Street and outer Lake Street to (T-4.2) is unwarranted,” calling it “counterintuitive because it compromises the integrity of the existing residential neighborhoods.”


He also argued that encouraging commercial uses there could take away from city efforts to create a “downtown Main Street of commerce, culture and social activities.”

A city map shows the large residential area in Auburn where zoning changes have been proposed.


According to city attorney Michael Malloy, when it comes to the city’s legal options, it could either pass the original measure, which allows a density of 16 units per acre, or “It may propose new language, whether that be the creation of a new district or the alteration of an existing district’s characteristics, and send the proposed text to the Planning Board for consideration, subject to customary notice and hearing requirements.”

Mayor Jason Levesque, who has strongly advocated for the change in zoning, said he expects the council will hold another “thoughtful discussion” on the issue Monday.

“We all have goals that we want to try to achieve for the city,” he said. “We have to work through the technical issues.”

He said while the council’s decision last week resulted in some unintended consequences, he doesn’t believe the city should “keep delaying action.” He said last week that he called for the special meeting on Monday — a week earlier than would be customary — because delaying would put “a financial burden on not only developers but individual property owners” who have projects in the pipeline.


Cousens confirmed Friday that the city has received a development proposal at 555 Court St., a parcel near Auburn Middle School, but said the Planning Board is not likely to review the project until May. He said it was taken off the April agenda because of the uncertainty surrounding the council’s deliberations.

The proposal, called “Stable Ridge Apartments,” would develop 60 units in five buildings.

He said one of the council’s options Monday would be to adopt the original T-4.2 zoning on a limited section of land within the original proposal, which could include the 555 Court St. parcel, but said staff does not recommend it.

Cousens said city staff has been doing its best to inform residents about the zoning discussions, but said it’s been particularly challenging due to the number of issues being debated at once. The city has also made recent changes in zoning to its Washington Street gateway as well as to land along the Lake Auburn watershed boundary.

He said city staff has fielded hundreds of phone calls from residents, and that they are trying to spend time with each property owner to explain what the changes could mean for them.

“We’re looking at everybody’s individual situation and trying to clarify that for them,” he said.


But he said they are also hearing from people who support the changes or who, once they learn more, are supportive of the city’s proposal. Councilor Hawes, who proposed the slate of amendments last week, estimated that despite the concerns heard during public meetings, 80% of the feedback he’s heard has been positive.

Cousens said “there’s a real effort to create new housing,” because it is increasingly difficult for everyday people to find a home or rental in Auburn.

Levesque said the intent behind the updated Comprehensive Plan was “to preserve our neighborhoods but also replicate them in other parts of the city, while allowing greater flexibility for property owners.”

“We’re trying to solve this housing crisis in little incremental bits,” he said.

Regarding the issue with the T-4.2 zoning, he said because the zoning has already been in place in some small areas of Auburn for two years, it’s showed promise.

“We haven’t seen a catastrophic collapse of our neighborhoods because of it,” he said. “You’re seeing some nice revitalization, and you’re not seeing someone coming in and buying a whole block to redevelop it.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: