An aerial view shows where crews from Gendron & Gendron cleared an area, foreground, in October 2022 near Mount Auburn Avenue and Gracelawn Road in Auburn. The property has been at the center of the Lake Auburn water quality debate. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

AUBURN — The City Council conducted first readings Monday on several ordinance changes in the Lake Auburn watershed that have been debated for months, including a new septic design standard and the rezoning of a portion of land off Gracelawn Road.

The council is scheduled to take up final readings on each ordinance change on Dec. 4.

City officials say the changes, taken together, will protect the long-term health of the watershed by requiring better-performing septic systems while also increasing the minimum lot size. The council also recognized an amended watershed boundary just south of a gravel pit off Gracelawn Road, which had previously been supported by the Maine Drinking Water Program.

Most of the issues, however, have become divisive in Auburn. Heading into the November election, which Mayor Jason Levesque lost to Jeff Harmon, signs stating “Protect Lake Auburn” could be seen around the city.

Following the votes Monday, Levesque said, “the process has worked, the science is sound and this will protect the lake, which was our goal when we started.”

Prior to a vote on the new septic standard, city staff said the new design and ordinance was peer reviewed, and that the standard is “significantly more restrictive than state mandates.”


Current systems would be grandfathered until they need replacement, however, the language urges inspections of any septic system within five years, or as a condition of sale when a property changes hands. City staff has acknowledged that there are likely current systems that are failing due to age and the current design.

Because the septic ordinance change would increase the number of buildable lots in the watershed, the Planning Board had previously recommended that the change should coincide with changing the zoning in the watershed “to allow fewer houses to offset the possible unwanted development in the watershed of Auburn’s drinking water supply,” according to a memo.

The zone change increases the minimum lot size to three acres from one acre.

John Blais, deputy director of planning and permitting, said Monday that without the zone change, there would be 80 lots that could be developed under the new standard, but by adding the three-acre minimum, it is reduced to 30 lots.

During public comment, Bruce Rioux said undeveloped land is the best filtration source to prevent phosphorus from stormwater runoff entering the lake.

“Now we’re taking the same parcel of land and putting a big house and a driveway on it,” he said. “And even though it’ll have a better septic system, you will still be adding pollution to the lake.”


Blais said the city passed low-impact development standards last year that require phosphorus control plans for any watershed development of at least 200 square feet, and that the city has been frequently working with landowners on the plans.

The council voted 6-1, with Councilor Belinda Gerry opposed, on the shift to a three-acre minimum, and voted 5-2, with Gerry and Councilor Rick Whiting opposed, on the updated septic design.

All the changes considered Monday were recently approved the Auburn Water District board of trustees, and were given favorable recommendations by the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission and the Planning Board.

In late September, an ad hoc committee made up of officials from both Auburn and Lewiston sent its recommendations to the Auburn Water District and Lewiston Water Division, stating it recommends the adoption of the zoning amendments “for the protection of Lake Auburn.”

City Manager Phil Crowell said Monday that he received a communication from Lewiston City Administrator Heather Hunter that stated Lewiston is supportive of the ordinance changes with “two provisions,” but didn’t elaborate. Hunter voted to approve the changes on the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission.

The council also voted 5-2 to approve rezoning roughly 60 acres off Gracelawn Road owned by John Gendron. The Planning Board had previously recommended that if changed, it should shift to the General Business zone, which allows for a wide range of housing and some commercial uses.


Gendron has previously proposed a large housing development on the site, but the scope of development will depend on the eventual zoning and watershed boundary. The state says the amended boundary is conservative based on existing data. The line runs just south of the main gravel pit area operated by Gendron & Gendron Inc. However, the Drinking Water Program said further investigation would be needed to establish a boundary closer to Lake Auburn.

A spokesman for Gendron previously told the Sun Journal that they would pursue further testing to amend the boundary further north.

Prior to the vote Monday, Councilor Dana Staples said he struggled with how to vote and “spent a lot of time reading about this one.”

He said what swayed him is the area’s current use as a gravel pit, where its owners can “dig down to the water table” if they want.

“If we rezone, we allow the Planning Board to adopt best practices for management of the site,” he said. “It’s not an easy issue. But, given the options we have tonight, it makes the most sense to vote for this.”

Whiting said he opposed the type of zoning proposed, stating it should instead be zoned Suburban Residential, where it can be developed in “a safe manner that is less intense,” and “given the public’s horror and opposition” to previous proposals for the site.

Levesque said the shift to the General Business zoning on the Gracelawn parcel was recommended in the 2010 Comprehensive Plan.

Levesque said following council approval, the Auburn Water District will likely pursue the slate of ordinance changes in the upper watershed towns of Turner, Minot, and Buckfield.

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