In the early 1960s, Auburn’s city leaders, with commendable foresight, set aside some 20,000 acres, about 40% of the city’s land area, for the purpose of preserving farming, forestry and open space as well as preventing suburban sprawl. In 2023, a different generation of leaders is seeking, with less commendable lack of foresight, to replace farms with houses.

Pressed by the mayor and City Council, the Planning Board on May 9 considered a proposed ordinance change that would redefine the meaning of the term “farm land” in the Agriculture and Resource Protection District (AG/Rural Zone). The proposal, put forward by Planning Board member Evan Cyr, would run contrary to the city’s comprehensive plan, could adversely impact the municipal budget, and would open the zone to ravenous developers.

The planning staff recommended against the current draft and the board has delayed a decision, hoping the staff can devise alternative acceptable language.

At present, in order to build a single-family dwelling in the so-called AG/Rural Zone, the applicant has to show that the residence is “accessory” to farming operations, that it will be built on a parcel of at least 10 acres, and that at least 30% of the occupants’ gross annual household income “will be derived from farm uses” or that such farm-related income equals at least 30% of the city’s median household income.

The draft ordinance retains the minimum lot size but substitutes, for the income test, a requirement that’s easy to meet — namely that the footprint of a residence, including structures, driveways, parking areas, walkways and patios, will cover no more than 20% of the lot it sits on. (Unless you’re an obscenely wealthy movie star, sports celebrity or business mogul, you’re unlikely to build a house with a footprint of 2 acres or about 87,000 square feet). The substitute requirement would do little to perpetuate farming or prevent suburban sprawl.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the problem is to focus on Peter Moore, the sole person who spoke in favor of the ordinance change at the May 9 meeting.


According to the city assessor’s records, Peter and Mary Moore are Falmouth residents who own three parcels, totaling over 543 acres, on Jordan School Road in the southern part of Auburn, which they acquired in 1988. Their land includes no structures other than a barn, and tax records indicate that the land is categorized as being in tree growth, which results in a lower tax rate.

I don’t know what the Moores’ motivation was in purchasing these parcels 35 years ago. However, if it was with the expectation that future zoning changes would permit development, then they appear to be close to hitting the jackpot.

The land is assessed by the city at $312,300. Suppose the ordinance changes and the Moores sell. By simple arithmetic, they would have the potential for conveying as many as 50 10-acre parcels. If we assume the 50 lots were priced at $100,000 each, the raw land alone would be worth $5 million.

A developer who built houses on those lots could earn considerably more from the profits of construction. Since Jordan School Road area faces Durham, New Gloucester and the Greater Portland market, I doubt it would be hard to find eager buyers.

What are the odds that the unbuilt portion of each of these 10-acre lots will continue to be used for agriculture? Not that high, I expect!

We’re not talking about Little House on the Prairie. I’m assuming that upscale homes would be erected and marketed, touting the large lot sizes, privacy, rustic setting and proximity to Portland, for prices in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $750,000 (comparable to those in the Brunswick area). People who can afford those price tags don’t get up at 5 a.m. to plow fields or milk cows.


Once this trend begins, farming would probably quickly disappear. Upward pressure on land prices in the AG/Rural Zone would induce older farm families to sell and deter younger ones from buying. In the 1950s and early 60s, while growing up in northeastern New Jersey, I witnessed such a trend, when large tracts of vegetable “truck” farms were rapidly replaced by suburban tract housing.

Proponents of the ordinance change would probably argue there’s nothing wrong with this. Even at only a half million valuation per new house, the added municipal annual tax revenues from the Moore holdings alone could yield nearly $600,000, more than 100 times what they currently pay, thereby providing relief to other tax payers.

Perhaps, but what would it cost to plow the roads for, provide fire and police protection to, and educate and transport the school-age children of these outliers? And what would the price tag be for improving country roads to handle the heavier traffic which would inevitably result from increased residential development? Finally, and not as easily quantifiable, what would the impact be on the future of local agriculture?

Auburn’s Comprehensive Plan, most recently updated in 2021, articulates a policy “to identify tools and strategies for ensuring the continuing existence and growth of the farming and agriculture economy as a way of life in our city, which in turn sustains our population with locally produced and healthy foods.” In keeping with this policy, the plan establishes as one of its goals: “Strengthen and grow Auburn’s existing subsistence, community, and commercial gardening and farming capacity.” How does the elimination of substantial existing farm acreage support that goal?

Another policy of the Comprehensive Plan is to achieve “growth out from the downtown core and older established neighborhoods” so as to provide “the most efficient utilization of city services.” The plan does not favor “leapfrog” development or “suburban sprawl” in the outlying sections of the city. The Moore property is located in one of the outlying “restricted or non-growth areas,” where “the city desires to see little or no growth and development over the next ten years.” So why facilitate leapfrog residential development in an area that’s been specifically earmarked for restricted growth?

Land development is an important expression of societal values and government policies. In medieval Europe, peasant farmers lived communally in villages, rather than separately on the plots they tilled, in order to secure mutual aid and protection in a lawless society. In America’s western expansion, families lived alone on isolated farms, because the Homestead Act of 1862, seeking to promote rapid frontier settlement, awarded up to 160 acres of land to settlers who lived on and improved it. In Auburn in the 1960s, a high value was placed on farming, open space and creating a firewall against sprawl.

Now the city appears to be heading towards making its AG Zone “agricultural” in name only, leaving most of the acreage planted with no crops but McMansions.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 16 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at

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