LEWISTON — After weeks of tense talks between Lewiston and Auburn officials regarding changes within the Lake Auburn watershed, Lewiston filed a lawsuit against the Auburn Water District on Thursday in Androscoggin County Superior Court.

The civil complaint asks the court to declare that the Auburn Water District does not have the authority to change the definition of the watershed or its boundary, and that any increased development causing pollution to the lake goes against the water district’s charter and its agreement with Lewiston.

A city news release Thursday afternoon said the lawsuit was filed after the Auburn Water District ignored a previous request from Lewiston officials to “adopt a moratorium on future development in the Lake Auburn watershed, unless and until a study showed that there would be no adverse effects on the quality of the region’s drinking water.”

“The City of Lewiston and the Auburn Water District have a long partnership to provide clean drinking water from Lake Auburn,” Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said in the release. “I hope that this dispute can be resolved in that spirit. Until then, Lewiston will fight to ensure that all of us who get our drinking water from Lake Auburn will continue to get clean water.”

The lawsuit centers on a recent decision in Auburn to rezone 148 acres between the Auburn Mall area and the lake, as well as ongoing discussions about updating septic design standards in the watershed. Lewiston contends that both moves would increase development near the lake, resulting in more stormwater runoff and other harms to water quality.

The suit states that the Auburn Water District has not done what it needs to do under its agreement with Lewiston in order to protect the lake, and that its recent decisions could lead to both cities losing a waiver from filtration.

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The two cities have long discussed the threat of losing the waiver, which allows the district to treat water without building a filtration plant.

According to the suit, it was estimated in 1991 that “compliance with the filtration requirements, without a waiver, would then cost Lewiston Water and AWD ratepayers between $20 million and $24 million with annual operating costs projected at $1.5 million to $2 million.”

The news release Thursday said, “Now, costs of filtration are likely double that amount.”

The lawsuit, written by Lewiston city attorney Michael Carey, states that the Auburn Water District “has adopted an official map of the Watershed that contradicts and is in breach” of the agreement between both cities as well as AWD bylaws.

The city’s aim through the civil complaint is to receive a declaration of the “respective rights and duties” of both the Auburn Water District and Lewiston under the agreement, as well as a declaration of the water district’s duties under its charter.

Officials from the Auburn Water District did not immediately respond to calls from the Sun Journal.

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Later on Thursday, Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque issued a statement in response to the lawsuit, stating, “It is unfortunate that the City of Lewiston has embraced this shortsighted approach to eliminating opportunity, while at the same time, refusing to address our most pressing need: remediating the harmful impacts that already exist in the watershed.”

“As mayor, I will continue to encourage our City Council to support the efforts of our dedicated Water District trustees,” he said.

Auburn city staff has argued that the updated septic standard will create a “net benefit” to the lake by requiring better performing septic systems. In response to development concerns, the change is also expected to be paired with a change in housing density to one unit per three acres, which is set to be reviewed by the Auburn Planning Board. The city also approved new phosphorus control measures within the watershed that require any new structure over 200 square feet to submit a “phosphorus control plan.”

Levesque said Thursday that the Auburn Water District and other city officials are “deeply committed to ensuring that our community has the safest, highest quality drinking water,” adding, “For too many years, the practice of the City of Lewiston and others was to do nothing and hope for the best. That practice leads to failure.”

He also said water standards are not to be “negotiated,” and should instead “be determined by science.”

In March, the Auburn City Council approved rezoning the 148 acres off Gracelawn Road after a recent study said the area should not be considered part of the watershed. The land was moved into a zoning district that allows for a range of commercial uses.

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Later that month, Lewiston sent “demand letters” to both the Auburn Water District and Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission, asking the entities to place a moratorium on new development in the watershed in response to the rezoning and septic standard discussions.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the definition of the watershed includes the Gracelawn parcel, and that “AWD has no authority to amend or otherwise change such definition of the watershed without the valid written consent of (Lewiston) and the approval of the Maine Drinking Water Program.”

It also asks the court to declare that “the increased development made possible by (an updated septic ordinance) will increase pollution of the water of Lake Auburn contrary to the AWD Charter and the duties of AWD” under its agreement with Lewiston and its application for approval of a waiver from filtration.

The news release from Lewiston officials Thursday said, “To date, Auburn Water District has not responded to the request and has refused to discuss or negotiate the matter with Lewiston. So, in order to ensure its voice, and that of Lake Auburn’s, is heard, the City of Lewiston filed this lawsuit.”

In an initial response to Lewiston on April 21, Steve Milks, president of the Auburn Water District board of trustees, said simply, “The Auburn Water District board of trustees has retained counsel to address this matter.”

After a follow-up email from Lewiston administration seeking clarification and approximate timeline for a response, Milks urged Lewiston officials to watch trustees meetings regarding board members’ positions on lake protection, and to direct any further questions to the board’s legal counsel. Milks is also an Auburn city councilor.

Last week, the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission sent a letter to Auburn city officials and the AWD recommending that no new development should be approved in the watershed under recently-enacted ordinance changes for at least the next 90 days.

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