Maine has suffered from spiraling housing prices over the past several years, with the median home sale price rising from about $225,000 in 2018 to about $383,000 in 2023, a 70% increase. Auburn, ME—a town of 24,000 located 35 miles from Portland—has plenty of job opportunities but has failed to grow its population over the last few decades due to restrictive zoning, according to Republican Mayor Jason Levesque.
Elected in 2017, Mayor Levesque set out to reform the town’s zoning laws, land use practices, and permitting processes to encourage development. He set a goal of adding 2,000 units to the housing stock and attracting 6,000 new residents—a 25% population increase—by 2025.
The Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone (known as the Ag Zone) accounts for about 40% of the land in Auburn. Initially set aside for farming but today mostly forested, it heavily restricts development within its borders. Most homeowners in the Ag Zone also oppose nearby development due to concerns it would raise their property taxes. Mayor Levesque’s first attempt at reforms to the Ag Zone failed due to strong opposition. After this setback, the city engaged a variety of stakeholder groups to solicit input, listened to residents’ concerns, and then refined its approach.
Because mayors do not possess much formal authority in Auburn, Mayor Levesque had to rely on the cooperation of the City Council and Planning Board. Between 2019 and 2023, the City Council passed several reforms including the following:
Additionally, Auburn started to sell publicly owned land for housing development. As of October 2022, the city had seven parcels of publicly owned land for sale in an attempt to generate revenue for the city while encouraging developers to increase housing supply. The city also reduced permitting fees out of concern they provided an obstacle to development.
While the changes in law are too recent to determine their long-term effect, Auburn had more than 400 units in development in October 2022, the majority of which are multifamily units. The city saw a spike in permit approvals in 2022, with 237 housing units permitted, up from only 26 in 2021. Builders are also using unique and underused buildings, including a former church, for housing developments. In 2023, a local developer applied for a permit to build a mixed-use apartment complex with about 1,100 units across 80 acres, which would be more than 10 times the typical number of houses permitted in Auburn in recent years, and equivalent to about 5% of the city’s population.
Read more zoning and land use case studies here.
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