Auburn Planning Board opts to slow down residential rezoning process

Jun. 23 — AUBURN – A quick timeline sought by the City Council to implement a new type of zoning in several residential areas of the city that will not move forward after the Planning Board said the public process so far has been insufficient.

The board on Tuesday was asked by the council to review and make recommendations on a new type of form-based code, known as T-4.2B, but was also asked to apply the zoning to several of the city’s core residential areas.

While the board gave a favorable recommendation for the new zone – with some amendments – members agreed they were not comfortable applying the zoning to the proposed neighborhoods without the council first approving the new zoning type.

Officials have said the changes are meant to address previous concerns from residents that led to a petition effort to repeal it. However, several residents speaking during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting Tuesday said the amended zoning proposal felt rushed, and didn’t address their biggest concerns for higher density and building sizes.

Board member Brian Dubois called for scheduling a community conversation to get more public feedback.

Staff told board members that a council directive requested the recommendations by July 7.

When asked, Councilor Dana Staples said the quick turnaround was established to address concerns from residents over the recently-approved T-4.2 zoning, which allows for a broader range of commercial uses in a residential zone.

The deadline for the petition effort to submit the required signatures to repeal the zoning is also the first week of July.

Tuesday’s hearings were a continuation of months of debate over proposed zone changes intended to encourage new housing development and infill development in residential areas. But, the process has been met with fierce opposition from residents concerned that the changes will alter the character of historically single-family neighborhoods.

Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels in urban areas that are already largely developed.

The proposed T-4.2B zone attempts to address previous public concern by limiting the types and sizes of businesses allowed. The zoning would not allow marijuana businesses, drive-through businesses, or restaurants or other retail over a certain size.

City staff and those involved in the updated Comprehensive Plan attempted to explain the rationale behind the proposed density of 14 units per acre.

Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said the vision when updating the Comprehensive Plan was to allow an additional unit that has been allowed in the past. He said a density of 14 units per acre equals three units on a typical 10,000-square-foot lot, which he said is only one more than had been allowed.

Planning Board Chairman Evan Cyr said one-acre lots are rare in the areas proposed for rezoning, meaning most new development would be smaller, infill projects.

Several residents said the proposed density is concerning as municipalities across the state prepare for LD 2003, legislation that, among other things, could allow 2.5 times the allowed density in designated “growth areas.”

Kaitlyn Mahoney, who lives on Vickory Road, said she recently moved to Auburn to escape her former Massachusetts neighborhood, which “changed drastically” due to development. Her road is one area proposed for the shift to T-4.2B.

“The quality of our neighborhoods just fell apart,” she said, adding that when she received the meeting notice, “it scared me enough for me to come here.”

Jeff Harmon of Vista Drive said the new zoning was based on quick edits made from city councilors, and deserves more public engagement. He said he still has issues with the building height, size, density and setbacks.

Scott Berry, who lives on Davis Avenue, said he agreed with the updated zoning. He said the “way the economy is going,” the zoning will allow people to build in-law apartments and have other options.

“Some people don’t like progress,” he said. “I like progress.” But, he cautioned officials to “be mindful of the neighborhoods and what’s going to be built there.”

Councilor Staples, who served on the Comprehensive Plan committee, said the thinking behind the updates was to increase housing to address the housing shortage, but do it by increasing density in the residential core where there are already city services.

He said the form-based code was designed to encourage some neighborhood-type businesses, like corner stores, and “mom and pop” businesses that could have owner-occupied residential units.

After the board voted down applying to the zone to the Court Street neighborhood, a motion to continue the meeting past 9 pm failed.

Earlier in the meeting, the board recommended approval of the new zone, but with a few amendments. One would eliminate the density limit of 14 units per acre, instead of making density based on lot size or the maximum 16 units per acre based on lot size.

Mayor Jason Levesque said Wednesday that in response to the meeting, staff is working to schedule two community conversations in July, with dates and times to be determined.

“I really appreciate the work the Planning Board did on the significant changes to our zoning amendments,” he said. “With their recommendations, I’m confident we will have the best zoning possible.”

The City Council is slated to take up the issue next week.

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