It was standing room only in the Auburn City Council Chamber on Monday night with many others in an adjacent overflow room. Many were there to voice concerns with several proposed zoning changes. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — City officials on Monday approved a controversial rezoning of a section of land abutting the Lake Auburn watershed, making the land available for potential development.

The rezoning effects 148 acres lying between the Auburn Mall area and Lake Auburn, which includes a large gravel pit. City officials pursued the change after a recent study said the land should not be considered part of the watershed, but a number of residents and some councilors have since disputed it, stating the city should take a closer look.

During a second and final reading Monday, Councilor Rick Whiting urged the city to collect new hydrogeological data in the area, which he said is outdated. He’s not convinced that groundwater from the gravel pit area isn’t draining toward the lake. Several residents have said future development activity in the area could impact water quality at a time when the lake is considered fragile.

However, city staff continued to press that the data shows that stormwater drains internally in the gravel pit area, eventually making its way to the Androscoggin River watershed. Eric Cousens, director of Planning and Permitting, said the recent study said developing the site with adequate stormwater treatments could reduce pollutants entering the groundwater.

The debate underscores a much larger communitywide discussion over the lake and how to manage future development at a time when development pressure is high due to the housing crisis.

Whiting also brought up concerns about a closed city landfill that sits on the land. Cousens said the landfill site cannot be developed due to environmental regulations.


“I find it hard to believe that (runoff is) entirely going to the Androscoggin,” Whiting said regarding the site, adding that given its proximity to the lake, “the least we can do” is take a closer look.

An effort to table the vote failed 4-3, with Councilors Belinda Gerry and Dana Staples siding with Whiting. The council passed an amendment to remove the landfill from the rezoning.

Peggy Volock asked the council why the city needs to cut away the land abutting the lake, and why it was being rezoned to allow for commercial as well as residential uses.

“We have a mall down the street that’s half empty,” she said.

Pam Rousseau, who has been outspoken throughout the council’s rezoning discussions, said she was educated in geology and doubts the data that led to the proposal to remove the land from the watershed.

“You will be responsible for your family blaming you for the destruction of Lake Auburn,” she told the council.


Councilor Dana Staples said he was initially in favor of the rezoning, but said after hearing from constituents over the past two weeks, he’s changed his mind. His comments were met with applause.

“I’m listening. When you tell us stuff we didn’t have before, it works,” he said.

Staples said the vote should be delayed until new groundwater data and data on the landfill could be collected.

Mayor Jason Levesque reminded the council that the recent watershed study, conducted by FB Environmental and other partners, took nine months and cost $100,000, questioning whether another study was needed.

Councilor Steve Milks, who serves on the Auburn Water District board of trustees, said the board agrees with the new watershed boundary. He also called the gravel pit the “worst-case scenario” for stormwater in the location, arguing that development with the necessary stormwater measures is a better way to protect the lake.

The final reading passed 4-3.


Maria Douglas told councilors that the reason Auburn saw such a public response Monday, which also saw a first reading on rezoning a large residential area, was the speed at which the city is moving forward. A second reading on that issue will take place in just one week, on March 28.

Douglas said the decisions are being based on a Comprehensive Plan process that was conducted during the pandemic, when many people, including her, were not comfortable attending public meetings.

“These will have long-term ramifications,” she said, urging the city to send the issues to referendum.

Levesque said Tuesday that the new zoning will take effect in five days. When asked about the potential for development on the property, he said he expects the city will field proposals this year.

Any projects, he said, would be subject to site plan review and would likely come with conditions, including “ongoing monitoring” of stormwater.

A Google image shows the area between the Auburn Mall and Lake Auburn that was rezoned by the City Council this week. It features a large gravel pit, center left.

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