AUBURN — A 13-month study of the city’s agricultural properties and the people who use them could help fix some problems that have developed over the years, councilors were told Monday.
“We are getting calls from seniors in parts of the city who have held on to these properties,” City Planner Doug Greene said at Monday’s council workshop. “They don’t pay high property taxes, but they can’t sell it if it’s vacant. It’s not desirable because people know they would not be able to get a building permit for it.”
Councilors are scheduled to vote on setting aside $40,000 to study the city’s Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone, which has been a part of city codes and policies since the 1950s. A grant from the Maine Environmental Funders Network would add another $10,000.
Auburn’s agriculture zone covers 20,000 acres, about 40 percent of the city’s total area.
Councilors are scheduled to host a public hearing on the study and vote at their Oct. 17 meeting.
The project would hire a consultant to study properties in the agriculture zone and how they are being used, to talk to residents about how they want the land to be treated and about the zone changes, and to determine the economic value of the zone. It would create a database of properties, host several public meetings and forums, and create a final report with recommendations.
The agriculture zone is designed to promote open space and the use of natural resources, and to encourage farming, forestry and recreation.
“Trends in farming have really changed over the last decades or so,” Greene said. “It seems now is an appropriate time to take a look at where we stand today with agriculture in Auburn.”
One way it works is by keeping lot sizes for house lots high — a minimum of 10 acres. In contrast, the suburban residential zoning classification allows house lots of half an acre or more. Urban residential-zoned house lots can be as small as a quarter of an acre.
Another is by requiring much of the owner’s income to come from the agricultural uses on the property.
Those rules have an economic impact. Since the agriculture zone does not allow as many house lots as the residential zones, the properties tend to have lower property values and lower taxes.
“There could be unintended consequences with current regulations in place, so we feel it’s important to look at that area now,” Greene said.
One consequence is stopping small businesses before they get started.
“We get phone calls on a regular basis from young farmers interested in a vacant piece of land that is suitable for farming,” Greene said. “I have to tell them they can’t meet the current requirements. They don’t meet the requirement that 50 percent of their family income must come from forestry or farming or some production from that land. It speaks to one of the key points, that agricultural trends have changed since the late 1960s.”
Councilor Andy Titus said he wanted assurances that the $10,000 grant would not steer the study.
“It seems to me the hot-button issues are zoning now and the changes in property values,” Titus said. “First, we have to decide why the rules are the way they are now. And then we need to look at what really is different now, and what zoning is needed to fix it. I hope that what comes from this is good ideas.”
Former City Councilor Dan Herrick, an Auburn farmer, said he had no confidence in the study.
“This study is going to be biased from the start,” Herrick said. “Us farmers, ag/resource protection zone owners, apparently don’t have a choice if we want this study or not. It just shows who is running the city right now, and it’s not the public.”