After years of debate, Auburn is poised to change its agricultural building requirements
When you head to Valley View Farm from downtown Auburn, it doesn't take long to leave the city and find rolling green hills and forests.
The farm is located 10 miles out of town within the 20,000 acres of land that is protected by agricultural zoning. And that's part of what attracted Valley View Farm co-owner and Auburn state representative Kathy Shaw to it 24 years ago.
"I was looking for land that was not going to be under pressure in 1999 to be developed," she said, wading through milling bands of turkeys and chickens.
Shaw raises chickens, rabbits, sheep and more on over 140 acres of land and makes her living farming and landscaping. She says the zoning not only protects farmland, but makes it affordable to farm.
"I personally could not afford to buy 150 acres of land without the protection that this current zoning has provided me," she said.
The zoning requires that 30% of a household's earnings come from agricultural practices. And to build in the zone, the landowner needs to farm or earn up to 30% of the city's median income. It's been challenged multiple times and was the subject of a lawsuit in the 1980s. The city council altered the income requirement from 50% to 30% in 2019, but it has remained the primary method of ensuring the zone stays agricultural.
It's a unique zoning set up in Maine, where an estimated 10,000 acres of farmland are converted to development each year, according to the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Census data shows Maine reported 573 fewer farms in 2017 than in 2012. Despite that, Androscoggin County gained 33 new farms in the same time period.
But Mayor Jason Levesque says the time has come for Auburn to do away with the income requirements. He's been open about his desire to grow the city’s housing stock -- and its population -- by encouraging new development. But he insists the issue is about morals, not development.
"The people that own homes before that were built before 1964, they have no tie into agriculture," he said during an interview in his office. "They can live there, buy, sell, they are exempt."
"And then you have the other class of people who have land or now after so many years of inherited land, with no value, but they're still paying taxes on it."
But it's hard not to look at the zone in the grand scheme of Levesque's housing agenda. The three-time mayor has campaigned on changing the zoning requirements, and has vowed to add 2,000 housing units to the city. The city estimates 575 homes could be built in the zone.
Levesque's housing efforts have received national attention. He's been invited to speak to other state legislatures. A bill put forward by then-Rep. Bruce Bickford, an Auburn Republican, that would have made zoning income requirements illegal in Maine was supported by national libertarian policy groups such as the Mercartus Center and the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Farmers in the zone are concerned about the effects new development could have on their way of life. But they're also worried about being able to stay on the land. Allowing for more building in the zone will raise the value of the land — which would also raise their taxes.
Farmers Chloe Meyers and Grant Roberts established Open Heart Farm in Auburn just last December. Meyers said they were attracted to the area because the cost of living and the land was affordable. She think any big changes could hurt their budding farm's future.
"We have actually been looking for the right farmland for us and our operation for about five years," she said.
But not all landowners in the zone feel that way. Dennis Wheeler told the city's planning board in early May that his mother deeded him land in the zone on her deathbed.
"I'm just looking for someone to tell me that I can build a house for my family on the land that was given to us from the state of Massachusetts for fighting in the Revolutionary War," he said.
The board was debating a change put forward by member Evan Cyr that would remove the income and agricultural requirements of the zone while limiting building on certain valuable soils.
But planning department director Eric Cousens warned the council that such changes could run afoul of the city's comprehensive plan that promotes growth outward from the center of town.
"The plan does not favor leapfrog development in the outlying sections of the city and this pattern is often referred to as suburban sprawl," he said.
The board had been asked by the city council to come up with a way to remove the income limit. But after most of the public feedback was negative, Planning board member Riley Bergeron said the board's task was to find a reasonable alternative to the income requirement.
"And I don't think this is the standard of reasonable alternative," he said.
After the majority of the public comment was negative, the planning board asked the city to create a proposal that would remove the income requirement in the agricultural zone, but require any new development to include a farm, recreational or natural resource use business or land use plan.
It's hard to say how much change will actually come from a zoning overhaul. Levesque said he estimates anyway from 15 to 25 new homes might be built in the zone over the next 5 years based on interest he's heard.
After the meeting, Valley View Farms' Kathy Shaw said it might be the best compromise she could expect in the current climate.
"At the end of the day, I wouldn't mind having more neighbors that are of the same mind as me," she said.
I see that as sort of a win for the community because it means that residents are able to provide meaningful impact and feedback and that feedback is being used by the local government.
Regardless of the outcome of the Auburn zoning debate, Shaw and others are encouraging residents to conserve their land or place it in trusts to keep it safe from future development.
Cyr, speaking for himself, said that's how residents should try to protect their land instead of relying on the income requirement. He also does not expect many more homes to be built in the zone if it changes. It's something the planning board will debate next Tuesday, when the city's alternative language is up for a public hearing.
He also thought the compromise might work — even if it doesn't satisfy everyone.
"There's never a product that everyone's happy with," Cyr said. "I learned that a long time ago."