06 Oct Jon Cartu Announced Amid real estate boom, Auburn officials continue talks on…
AUBURN — City officials sought some outside guidance Monday on how best to take advantage of a recent real estate boom, and will move forward with an initial plan to expand the downtown’s form-based code to surrounding neighborhoods.
Through a series of workshops, the City Council has been considering where Auburn fits within the larger statewide market, how it can attract new residents, and how it can address a shortage of housing. In September, the council informally agreed to a six-month timeline to increase available housing.
On Monday, officials invited local professionals to share their opinions, and considered a range of related steps to increase development — from updating its permitting fees to expanding the form-based code to allow for more in-fill development.
Brian DuBois, owner of DuBois Realty Group, briefed the council Monday on the current market, stating that he’s seeing the largest demand for efficient single-family homes, priced and geared toward either seniors or first-time home buyers.
DuBois told the Sun Journal in August that the current demand, coupled with low inventory, means little to no affordable housing stock for those groups.
He argued that Androscoggin County, and Auburn in particular, should find ways to make single-family development easier, because “there’s no question of demand.”
He said Monday that Auburn should consider tracts of land that are “not worth much due to zoning” that could be “developed to meet community needs.” Asked how the city could be more attractive to new residents, he said the city’s most pressing needs are to clean up its gateways, and address its high tax rate.
Councilor Leroy Walker asked DuBois about Auburn’s agricultural land, which was the focal point of a tense zoning debate last year. DuBois said there’s “a lot of land tied up that’s pretty much useless,” that could be used for housing.
Councilor Katie Boss pushed back, stating, “That land does have value, just not from a real estate perspective.”
In September, officials said that a preliminary analysis shows that existing services in Auburn could withstand a population growth of 6,000 residents. But, staff said, it must be determined where the city can best absorb new housing and growth.
During an earlier workshop Monday, staff said the expansion of form-based code to other neighborhoods could occur relatively soon, which differed from a previous estimate that it could take six months to update the zoning.
According to a city memo, staff believes that the current form-based code district, known as “Traditional Downtown Neighborhood,” also fits the character of four surrounding areas: the Multi-Family Urban district in New Auburn; the Multi-Family Urban district in the Newbury Street neighborhood; the Downtown Enterprise District, and the Multi-Family Urban District in the Hampshire, Goff and Summer streets neighborhoods.
Form-based code is used in zoning to regulate land development based on a specific urban form, and has grown in popularity as urban areas have begun to push back against sprawl and the loss of historic buildings and neighborhoods.
Officials are also considering changes to the city’s permitting fee structure, which according to Assistant City Manager Brian Wood, hasn’t been adjusted in seven years. As Auburn sees more growth, it should make sure the city is in line and competitive with other municipalities when it comes to development costs, he said.
The city has delegated authority to issue permits on behalf of the state, and staff said it could raise some of its fees and still have development costs that are 75% less than the state’s.
Mayor Jason Levesque questioned whether the city should eliminate permits for smaller residential projects like decks, sheds and other home improvements, but more than one councilor said more data was needed to consider wholesale changes to several sections of the city’s fee structure.