The gravel pit between Gracelawn Road and Lake Auburn in Auburn, seen March 23, 2022, is owned by John Gendron and has been at the center of a debate over the Lake Auburn watershed boundary and water quality protections. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

AUBURN — City officials said they are moving forward with changes to Lake Auburn watershed rules after attempts to resolve a lawsuit through mediation have failed.

A news release late Thursday said Auburn officials plan to move ahead with “ordinances that are fair, easier to understand, and based on the best available science,” including septic design changes and a revised watershed boundary line.

Lewiston officials said Auburn has long intended to move ahead with the new ordinances, despite taking part in mediation.

The city of Lewiston filed suit against the Auburn Water District last year over proposed changes to the Lake Auburn watershed boundary, which has since become a communitywide debate over development and water quality. Lewiston officials believe the changes could lead to more development near the lake that could threaten the two cities’ federal waiver, which keeps them from being required to build a costly filtration system.

Auburn officials said the revised watershed boundary line will use “a conservative approach to the watershed boundary line confirmed by multiple outside consultants.” Those consultants have had slightly different opinions on the boundary line, which is on property off Gracelawn Road owned by John Gendron.

As of last month, the Auburn Water District and Lewiston officials were still in negotiations regarding the lawsuit, with both parties agreeing to freeze deadlines for documents, a signal that the two sides may have believed they could settle the suit without going to a trial.

However, Auburn’s news release Thursday said the lawsuit “remains unresolved” despite “productive and hopeful discussions among the three local government entities.”

It states that “while not party to the lawsuit, in good faith, Auburn officials participated in recent mediation sessions to help resolve issues identified in a lawsuit filed by the city of Lewiston against the Auburn Water District.

“After failed attempts to help resolve this matter, the Auburn City Council will take action to protect the quality of the lake by implementing smart policy,” Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said in the release, adding that council action “was on hold while the three entities were engaged in mediation.”

Officials in Lewiston said Friday that while Auburn participated in mediation sessions, prior to Thanksgiving the city of Auburn “refused to confirm that it would wait for the mediation process to finish before moving forward on these proposed ordinances.”

“The city of Lewiston remains ready to work with Auburn and the Auburn Water District to protect Lake Auburn, including by continuing the mediation process at any time,” Lewiston spokesperson Angelynne Amores said.

Auburn’s news release also signaled more proposed changes, including a proposal to prohibit any new homes or agricultural uses in the area of the Lake Auburn watershed that lies in the agricultural zone, essentially creating a conservation area.

Other changes would increase the minimum lot size within the watershed district and establish a subsurface wastewater disposal system inspection program. Throughout the process, Auburn has said any approved changes should also be adopted in upper watershed towns such as Turner and Minot, which contribute nutrients to the watershed that end up in the lake.

“Auburn believes that transparent, easier to understand watershed regulation that reduces development potential and holds a higher science-based standard for phosphorus control and wastewater disposal is worth pursuing without delay,” Eric Cousens, Auburn’s director of planning and permitting, said. “We are hopeful that these science-based standards can be expanded by the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission to increase protections in upper watershed towns draining into Auburn.”

Recently, the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission hired consultant CEI to conduct a peer review of a previous study by FB Environmental, which has been used as the basis for much of Auburn’s proposed changes.

While CEI said it largely agrees with FB Environmental’s overall findings, it questions a few major elements, including the septic updates. It said there may be other ways to achieve the city’s stated goals of better-working septic systems without creating new buildable areas.

Levesque said in the release that “Auburn can no longer allow failing septic systems to continue being replaced with systems that are polluting our drinking water. Watershed protection efforts should be based on science, expert opinions, and best available technology.”

The CEI report also cautioned the city from “discounting” the Gracelawn Road area from the watershed entirely, stating that the potential impacts to the lake will depend on how the area, including the gravel pit, is “restored and developed.”

Gendron has said he will pursue housing development on the site, but the Planning Board has not yet taken up a zoning change request related to the property.

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