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Auburn council repeals zoning ordinance at center of citizen's petition

The city of Auburn Monday repealed a controversial new zoning ordinance, but critics say the council is circumventing the citizen's referendum process in the city.

The ordinance would have allowed for increased development and housing across more than 1,600 acres. Last month, the group "Citizens for Sensible Growth" submitted more than 2,400 signatures calling on the city to repeal or hold a citywide vote on it. And on Monday night, several residents argued that the city is violating the intent of that effort by repealing the ordinance, and drafting language that would replace it with a similar kind of zoning.

In a letter last month, a lawyer for the group said that "there are no substantive differences" between the former ordinance and the new kind of zoning being drafted, and "the sole effect of the amendment would be to duplicate the Ordinance and frustrate the purpose of the Petition. As such, it must be tabled until the referendum election is held."

One of the group's organizers, Jeffrey Harmon, said he was disappointed that the council won't let residents vote on the issue in a referendum, and he would like the planning board to engage with and listen to residents of individual neighborhoods.

"And develop the vision for those neighborhoods. And apply appropriate, form-based codes. To govern what the development will be there," Harmon said.

But city planning officials noted that the new kind of zoning has several substantive changes compared to the previous ordinance, including limits on certain business uses. And Mayor Jason Levesque said that the city will provide opportunities for public input as the planning board takes up the issue.

"What we're doing is a clean slate, new process. New public input. More meetings. More notifications. By neighborhood. Delaying it, allowing this process to happen again," Levesque said.

While the majority of city councilors voted to repeal the zoning rule, several pushed back on the action. Councilor Richard Whiting said that he had never seen a referendum with so many signatures in the city, and councilors haven't listened enough to residents.

"I think we've been doing too much talking, and not enough listening. And I think we continue to not listen, and continue to keep talking. And I think it's going to be at our peril," he said.