- The Maine Wire - https://www.themainewire.com -

To help small farmers, this Maine city needs to update its zoning regulations

Over the last few months, the debate regarding the future of Auburn’s Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone (Ag Zone), which comprises 40 percent of the city’s land (>20,000 acres), has become a major point of contention among local candidates, land owners and taxpayers. According to the zoning ordinance, property owners within the Ag Zone must own a minimum of 10 acres and earn 50 percent or more of their household income from agriculture or forestry in order to build a home on their land.

The purpose of these regulations are to ensure the land within the Ag Zone is used as farmland and does not become a burden on the city’s resources. However, these requirements are extremely difficult for landowners to meet. According to a 2018 report, only 14 percent of farm households in the United States earn more than half of their income from farming. The report also notes that the income requirement would prevent most experienced farmers from building a home, and makes it virtually impossible for new farmers to build.

According to a Bates College survey of landowners in the Ag Zone, 95 percent of respondents said the majority of their income comes from non-farmland sources, meaning these individuals and families cannot build a home on their land. In addition, 41 percent of respondents said building a home for themselves and/or their families was desirable or very desirable whereas 36 percent of respondents said it was undesirable or very undesirable. The remaining 23 percent of respondents selected “neither” or did not make a selection. In other words, the plurality of these landowners want to build a home on their land, yet most of them are prohibited from doing so.

Further, the 10-acre requirement to build a home on the land is completely arbitrary. According to data collected every five years by the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms (1-9 acres) as a percentage of total farms in Maine has climbed nearly 80 percent since 1997. There were just 773 small farms in 1997 (10.4 percent of total farms statewide) and that number grew to 1,427 by 2017 (18.8 percent of farms statewide). Therefore, the 10-acre minimum simply prevents small farmers, who account for nearly one-fifth of all Maine farms, from building a home within the Ag Zone. 

What are the consequences of these one-size-fits-all policies? According to research from Bates College, development in Auburn has grown overall but has been stifled in the Ag Zone. Since 1973, development in the city has grown by 16 percent overall whereas the Ag Zone realized a 33 percent decrease in development. The income and property size rules within the Ag Zone should be eliminated or substantially altered to facilitate more farming and development.

Because the ordinance prevents most landowners from building on their property, the tax assessed value of the land has largely remained stagnant, whereas the rest of the city’s value has increased over time. As a result, landowners in the Ag Zone are paying far less in property taxes, and the rest of Auburn is shouldering that burden. According to Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, landowners in the Ag Zone pay approximately $25 an acre whereas other Auburn property owners pay between $100 and $300 per acre in residential areas and in the city’s center.

To be clear, adding more farms does not mean sprawl and does not add more costs for the city, but rather helps add value to the existing land and decrease other residents’ taxes.

Nonetheless, city councilors need to nix the income and acreage requirements to build a home on land within Auburn’s Ag Zone. Not only are these requirements suppressing property values, but they are also creating barriers to entry for new and experienced farmers who want to build a home on their own land.