Auburn’s urban development specialist, John Blais, points to a graphic on a large screen Tuesday night as he talks about septic systems during the Auburn Planning Board meeting at Auburn Hall. The board was discussing a proposed Lake Auburn watershed ordinance update. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — The Planning Board gave a favorable recommendation Tuesday on proposed updates to septic design standards in the Lake Auburn watershed, but tied the recommendation to several measures aimed at monitoring development and water quality.

The city has been eyeing changes to its septic design standard for several months stemming from a recent study of Lake Auburn. While the update would improve upon wastewater treatment in the watershed, it has raised questions over its effect on new housing development.

The study, which was given to officials late last year, said the septic standard used in the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay District has limited development on a significant part of the watershed by “effectively prohibiting the use of innovative and alternative septic system and leach field designs.”

City staff has said that because Auburn’s standard does not allow for alternative soils to be used in designs, some properties simply cannot meet the standard in order to install a system, which has restricted development, but that the design itself is not yielding the best results.

David Rocque, a retired soil scientist who helped Auburn write the updated rules, told Planning Board members Tuesday that the required depth for systems does not contain the soils needed to prevent nutrients from entering the groundwater.

He said he spoke to Auburn officials 15 years ago about concerns he had with the ordinance, calling it “a considerable threat to water quality.”

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He said because the required soils are difficult to find in the watershed, it has led to people granting easements on land that contains the proper soils, where multiple systems can be installed.

“You end up with a whole bunch of septic systems on land where wastewater is not being treated properly,” he said.

John Blais, deputy director of Planning and Permitting for the city, presented the details to board members, stating that the updates are part of other changes under consideration to assist in water quality efforts, including new phosphorus control measures and a possible shift to a lower allowed density in large areas around the lake.

“This is about water quality, this is not about new housing,” he said.

Staff also argued that the new septic standards would be beneficial in the long term because when the replacement of a system is required, the homeowner would have to meet the new standard.

Blais said there are 275 of a total 321 systems in the watershed that don’t need to meet new standards.

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During a public hearing on the change, several residents argued that while the updated septic standards would be beneficial, the change should not be implemented without further restrictions on development.

A “build-out analysis” in the lake study identified roughly 100 lots where building could take place if the septic system requirement was revised, but when asked Tuesday, staff said it’s difficult to determine the actual number because each specific lot would need to meet several requirements to build a septic system.

Stanley Tetenman, a member of the Poland Select Board, said the “proposal to use higher quality systems is a good goal,” but is not a reason to allow more development, which will increase runoff by clearing trees and creating more impervious surface.

“These are the decisions that should not be made by a handful of people,” he said.

Sam Boss cited several recommendations from the recent study of the lake, which urged the city to update its septic standards but also recommended against new development, and to use zoning as a means to restrict it.

“Following half the science isn’t good enough,” he said.

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Ben Lounsbury said he applauds the city for wanting to update the septic rules, but said the city should not forward the change without also placing tighter restrictions on development.

Mike Adler, who said as a plumbing inspector, he’s seen some of the outdated septic systems on the lake, agreed with the others. He said he often fishes on Lake Auburn and has seen the water quality decline.

“I don’t think the new design should be used as a tool for new development,” he said.

City Councilor Steve Milks was the only person to speak in favor of the change, stating that the Auburn Water District trustees recently voted to support the change.

The Planning Board voted unanimously on a motion to support the ordinance change, but with several conditions. It included that the approval coincide with reducing the allowed housing density in the area to one unit per 3 acres, and for the city to establish monitoring in the watershed after the change is in place. The recommendation states that if water quality degradation is found after monitoring, a moratorium on development would kick in.

The board also recommended placing requirements for septic system inspections at the point of sale, and every five years following.

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The new watershed standards would also require a phosphorus control plan for new structures over 200 square feet.

LEWISTON WADES IN

Earlier on Tuesday, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline announced that the Lewiston Water and Sewer Division would be including a notice “about protecting the water quality of Lake Auburn” in its next round of municipal water bills.

A news release said the recent zoning and ordinance change efforts in Auburn “will allow more residential and commercial development, which may increase the runoff of phosphorus and other chemicals leading to a decline in Lake Auburn water quality” that could increase water rates substantially.

“I am concerned about the hardworking families in our community, older adults on fixed incomes, and businesses that are already burdened,” he said. “Our residents and businesses won’t benefit from decreased water quality and subsequent high costs.”

Auburn Mayor Levesque posted a response on social media, stating Sheline’s news release translated to “Auburn needs to get permission from us before they do anything.”

He said, “I know that the people of Auburn and Lewiston are smarter than this and will keep an open mind on this issue,” adding, “P.S. Lewiston your merger failed. Get over it.”

On March 31, Lewiston leaders sent letters to Auburn water officials requesting a moratorium on any new development in the Lake Auburn watershed.

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