Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque peers through the fire pit Thursday afternoon at Lost Valley ski area in Auburn, where he plans to spend more time after leaving office. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — Jason Levesque’s office at Auburn Hall is filled with belongings he’s brought there over the past six years.

That’s because previous mayors didn’t spend nearly as much time there as he has. There were only a few things there when he was first elected — by 12 votes — in 2017. Sitting above his desk is a portrait of Auburn’s first mayor, Thomas Littlefield, who Levesque said is his inspiration because Littlefield helped Auburn jump from a town to a major city.

Whatever your opinion about Levesque’s policies or leadership style — which could at times be brash — he made being the mayor of Auburn his full-time job despite being a “weak” mayor in a council-manager form of government, with an annual salary of $7,000. For the first four years, it was $4,000.

Levesque sold his business, Argo Marketing, a month before he was elected.

“I made a conscious decision that my full-time job was going to be mayor of Auburn,” he said. “That hasn’t changed throughout. I probably put more hours into being mayor than anyone in the last 30 years. I didn’t want to do it halfway. It will be interesting to see if future mayors put the time that’s needed — and it’s needed — into the scope of work.”

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque sits at the bar Thursday afternoon at Lost Valley Brewpub in Auburn, where he has his own personalized mug and plans to spend more time there after leaving office. Piled in front of him are some of the favorite items he used and received during his three terms as mayor. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

After handily losing a reelection bid earlier this month to former Maine State Police Deputy Chief Jeff Harmon, Levesque is counting down his remaining days at Auburn Hall.


Harmon will be inaugurated Dec. 14.

Levesque sat down with the Sun Journal to discuss his three terms as mayor, which were defined by attempts at challenging longstanding practices that have maintained Auburn’s unique mix of urban and rural — practices that he feels have worked against economic growth.

Levesque said he prides himself on “righting wrongs” and addressing issues that previous elected officials have declined to tackle because they may not be politically expedient. In doing so, however, his combination of controversy and confrontation may have led to his defeat at the polls.


Nothing has arguably been more controversial during Levesque’s tenure than the debate over Lake Auburn water quality and proposed changes to watershed rules. Because Lake Auburn is also the public drinking water source for Lewiston, the issue saw heightened scrutiny.

The proposal to amend the watershed boundary and rezone a large swath of land off Gracelawn Road, and a subsequent proposal for a large housing development there, combined two controversial issues and seemed to create a perfect storm of opposition.


The proposal led to a lawsuit by the city of Lewiston that still has not been settled, a citizen petition blocking the rezoning, and officials that oversee water quality conducting months of discussions and studies on the land in question.

The City Council is now poised to approve a series of changes, including a modified watershed boundary, at its last meeting Monday before the new council is sworn in.

Levesque argues that the final ordinance amendments are essentially what was proposed over a year ago, including a new septic design standard in the watershed. During a first reading, only one member of the public spoke. Many who had been opposed in the past are now OK with the changes, he said.

A map shows the Gracelawn Road parcel at the center of a debate over watershed rules. The Maine Drinking Water Program approves of a new watershed boundary, shown in light blue, to protect Lake Auburn, which is indicated in green at upper left. The dark blue line was the originally-proposed boundary. Screenshot of map

However, those who fought against the initial rezoning and watershed boundary have said that without public opposition, the city would have implemented different changes that would have been more harmful. The initial watershed boundary proposed by officials was much closer to the lake and could have allowed a much larger development. Since then, Maine Drinking Water Program officials have reviewed the proposals, and recommended in favor of a modified boundary. They also urged further testing if the boundary is to be amended any closer to the lake. Lewiston officials have also reviewed the changes.

Ryan Smith, who has been one of the faces of the opposition to Levesque and the city’s rezoning proposals, said the council’s pursuit of the rezoning before conducting a proper process “cost ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees.”

Regarding his role in the Lake Auburn issue, Levesque said he spent much of his first term learning. Toward the beginning of his tenure, Levesque flew to Washington, D.C., and with the help of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, met with officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding the health of Lake Auburn.


He said he received “significant warnings that climate change is real” and that Auburn should prepare for it.

“I brought that urgency back to that topic, and now we’re finally doing the steps that were needed in order to protect the lake, and amplify it to the upper watershed,” he said, referring to the septic ordinance change. “But, because there was such deep-seated opposition to making these changes, which was not based in science at all, I’m afraid we’re already past the point of no return.”

Some of that community opposition may have been in response to Levesque’s somewhat evolving thoughts on the watershed over his tenure. He began by questioning all elements of the rules protecting the lake, including those that barred swimming and other recreation.

Levesque admits that his views changed throughout the process, but said, “that tells me that the process was good.”

“A lot of my initial statements were made to be thought provoking so that folks could think of possibilities and understand the true cost of Lake Auburn,” he said.

Asked if after the ordinance changes are adopted, Levesque would add the lake reforms to his list of accomplishments, he said no.


“It needed to be done, and that’s it,” he said. “For no other reason than I value our drinking water, and I knew by looking at science that too many past people in government kicked that can down the road.”


Another learning process for Levesque came during his first term when he tried to make fundamental changes to the city’s large agricultural zone. He said the initial attempt at changing the income standard that regulated housing development in that zone didn’t work “because I didn’t fully understand everything,” but he said it was an issue that he inherited.

A report commissioned by the city prior to Levesque’s tenure recommended that Auburn eliminate its long-held income standard, which required any landowner in the zone to make at least 50% of their income from farming if they wanted to build a residence in the zone.

Stanwood “Joe” Gray, who along with his wife operates an Auburn farm, ran against Levesque for mayor in 2019 partly due to the agricultural zone debate. Gray and others believed the city’s spotlight on the agricultural zone was misguided and that the City Council was relinquishing too much power to a mayor who is a nonvoting figurehead.

Some also argued that Levesque and city officials were failing to see and appreciate Auburn’s agricultural zone as unique for southern Maine and something that should be protected — or at the very least deserved a more nuanced approach to allowing more development.


Levesque eventually brought the issue back before city staff and the council, and a compromise ordinance was passed this year. A city committee that looked at the issue recommended that the income standard should be removed, but replaced with other protections.

“I followed its recommendations,” Levesque said about the 2017 report. “I followed it and just now got it done after six years. I had to get that done, it was morally bankrupt. I’m sorry some people don’t see it, but it was wrong. There are still more wrongs out there that need to be solved.”

Under the new ordinance, a landowner who submits a farm plan that is then approved by the city can build a home. According to city staff, two farm plans have been approved since the change, which will result in two new farms — and two new homes — on Trapp Road.

According to Eric Cousens, director of planning and permitting, one owner plans to provide goat meat, milk, honey, and permaculture-oriented agriculture and cooking classes beginning in 2025, while the other will create medicinal herbs to make tinctures, elixirs, teas, and skin care products.

Outgoing Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, right, presents Jason Levesque with an oversized gavel April 12, 2017, prior to Levesque being sworn into office during the inauguration ceremony at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


Asked what he believes were his biggest accomplishments, Levesque said 90% of what he did went unnoticed, and about 10% is what grabbed headlines and created controversy.


As an example, he said he’s most proud of the work he did with the Auburn school district.

At the start of his third term, Levesque bucked a trend and served on the School Committee. According to the City Charter, the mayor — or a city councilor appointed by the mayor — is a member of the School Committee, along with its seven elected members. In recent years, it has become commonplace for a councilor to assume the role, but Levesque decided to serve.

The school district had hired a new superintendent in 2020, and Levesque saw it as an opportunity to restart work he had previously attempted to find “cost-saving efficiencies” between the city and School Department.

He said his first attempt was “met with amazing opposition” from then-Superintendent Katy Grondin and City Manager Peter Crichton. But, since then, the city and school district have consolidated all maintenance, custodial, capital purchasing and more, which he said will save considerable taxpayer funds.

Superintendent Connie Brown, who was hired in 2020, said Levesque “has been a great advocate for the schools.”

“He has championed our budgets, and he has helped keep the focus on where I think it should be, which is raising student achievement and graduation rates, and we’ve been successful in both columns,” she said.


When Brown was hired during the pandemic the graduation rate was 72%. The class of 2023 had a 92% rate. She believes the class of 2024 will be about 95%. Student achievement scores have gone up about 40% across the board, she said.

Levesque also pushed the district to expand its dual enrollment program, which allows high school seniors to gain credits from several colleges, including Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Brown said Levesque’s interest “was broadening it to reflect the diversity at Edward Little, both ethnic and socioeconomic, and open it up to allow more kids to access it.”

Levesque also said no one knew how many hours he spent on the development of the new Edward Little High School, negotiating between school and city officials on the details, and working with the state on some hiccups.

“He’s been a great champion for the Auburn School Department. I’m grateful for being able to work with him, and I’m interested to see who the next mayor appoints,” Brown said.

As for the municipal side, Levesque believes his biggest accomplishment was “bringing pride back to Auburn.”


Jason Levesque, second from left, stands with other elected officials in July as President Joe Biden signs an executive order to encourage companies to manufacture new inventions in the United States at Auburn Manufacturing Inc. From left are U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, Levesque, U.S. Sen. Angus King and Maine Gov. Janet Mills. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

He said it started with the city’s 150th anniversary celebration, during which Levesque traveled around the city doling out as much cake as possible. Then the city introduced New Year’s Auburn and other festivals, an annual shopping village downtown, and pushed sports tourism efforts to attract more events.


The city also put together new television commercials, which Levesque said “introduced the reborn Auburn to New England.”

Levesque said he “took Auburn on the road” and was “Auburn’s biggest cheerleader,” singing the praises of Auburn in Augusta, at the Portland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Portland Council of Governments and more. He traveled to China and welcomed a sitting U.S. president to Auburn.

“And it worked,” he said. “I know because in the last two years we’ve had 1,600 new people move into Auburn and in the previous 60 we had net zero.”

Evan Cyr, a member of the Planning Board and Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission who supported Levesque for reelection, said he hasn’t always agreed with Levesque on policy. But, he said, “one of his greatest achievements was creating a culture of goal achievement and solutions-based aspirational outcomes.”

“I have always appreciated Jason’s focus on a greater vision of betterment for all Auburn residents and his drive to find solutions rather than dig in his heels for the sake of his own narrow vision in those moments,” he said.



The COVID-19 pandemic almost took up Levesque’s entire second term. But, he said the signs that Maine and Auburn would become desirable places for people looking to relocate caused him and other officials to look at policies to capitalize on the coming real estate boom.

“I saw it in 2019, then (COVID-19) hit and I thought, we have to plan now,” he said. “We can’t let (COVID-19) keep us in the dark. I knew we were going to have a housing boom, with people coming up from Boston and New York, and displacing Portland people. And we captured lightning in a bottle.”

When Maine started to see its housing market take off, with home prices skyrocketing, Auburn began looking at zoning reforms. The city updated its Comprehensive Plan, which featured several elements on future growth, including the use of form-based code to encourage a variety of housing types and in-fill development. The city also allowed detached accessory dwelling units in most zones, removed almost half its permitting fees and put several city properties up for sale.

Following the process to update the Comprehensive Plan, Levesque and the city received some criticism for conducting the update during the pandemic. However, Levesque argues that all the meetings were either held on Zoom or in-person, when Auburn was among the first communities to begin holding in-person meetings again.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque stands in 2022 outside West Shore Landing on North River Road. The complex added 36 apartments toward his goal to create 2,000 housing units in Auburn by 2025. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Many of Auburn’s proposals preceded the passage of state legislation to combat a shortage of housing. In 2021, Levesque had set a goal for Auburn to build 2,000 new housing units by 2025. According to city data, 604 units have been permitted or built since 2020, with another possible 1,500 in the development pipeline.

However, the push for development, particularly the proposed rezoning of some established residential neighborhoods, became a contentious issue. Some members of the public, concerned for how rezoning could impact their neighborhoods, pushed back. Mayor-elect Jeff Harmon and Ryan Smith were among those who, with the group Citizens for Sensible Growth, petitioned the city to block the use of a form-based code known as T-4.2 in a large residential area surrounding Court Street.


As time went on, members of the group became convinced that Levesque and the City Council did not plan to listen to citizen concerns around development. After the T-4.2 zoning was blocked by the petition, the council worked with staff to create amended zoning known as T-4.2B, which officials argued addressed some resident concerns. Harmon’s group called it an attempt to circumvent the citizen petition in order to railroad through the zoning changes.

Levesque said he invited members of the group to take part in a discussion on the zoning, but they refused.

“They didn’t want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Responding to another common criticism that the city conducted only the bare minimum public process for many proposals, Levesque said, “our process went with double if not triple the required public meetings,” along with community listening sessions.

Harmon eventually filed an lawsuit in Androscoggin County Superior Court that said the city did not follow its zoning ordinance when approving the second phase of the Stable Ridge development on Court Street. Harmon is an abutter to the project. A judge sided with the city.

Through it all, Levesque has characterized the opposition as a common NIMBY (not in my backyard) response, similar to efforts that have been seen in other communities like Cape Elizabeth and North Yarmouth. He said the opposition has been the “same group that shows up every time, who wants to roll the city back to a time of less prosperity,” and who conducted a “long-term campaign against me.”


“Now we’ll see what they do, because governing and running are two different things,” he said.

Jeff Harmon, center, hugs his wife, Lisa, on election night in November while surrounded by supporters at Gipper’s Sports Grill in Auburn after receiving unofficial word that he defeated Jason Levesque in the race for mayor. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Harmon, who easily beat Levesque by a tally of 3,768 to 2,335, has said he is not against development, but believes Auburn “needs a different process to address these challenges.”

“I’ve said all along that this sort of one-size-fits-all residential zoning throughout the city is not going to accomplish the outcomes that we want and is not going to get community support,” Harmon told the Sun Journal after his win. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work on creating additional housing opportunities in the city.”

Harmon has also said Auburn needs to prioritize all types of housing, not just market-rate units that are unaffordable to many in the current market. During Levesque’s tenure, Auburn has focused almost exclusively on attracting market-rate developments.

The incoming council will have the chance to oversee a proposed affordable housing development off Vickery Road.

Levesque said he hopes the incoming government can keep Auburn’s “regulatory consistency.”


“Right now, every developer in New England is watching Auburn,” he said. “The incoming council may not want to acknowledge that, they might want to diminish everything we’ve done. The reality is clear, developers want to be here, and we have big growth on the horizon. But, they’ve all put things on pause because they’re scared that this council is going to come in like a bull in a china shop and try to upset the foundation and consistency we’ve built.”


Levesque said that despite the election loss, he’s not upset. He was hesitant to run for a fourth term in the first place, he said, due to heightened political mudslinging during his third term.

But, it’s clear that Levesque and his detractors disagree on who is responsible for Auburn’s political tone over that time. Levesque said there isn’t one policy decision he regrets during his time as mayor, but that he does regret that “after a year and a half of lies about my character” and intentions, and “vitriol that was spouted against me and my family,” it got to him and he “fought back.”

He said “constant lies” were spread about the discussions on the lake, the agricultural zone, with letters to the editor stating he was only creating policy that would benefit a small group of developer friends. He was also accused of “stacking” the ranks of elected and appointed officials with likeminded people.

“What developer friends? I didn’t know any developers until I became mayor. I never did any work in Maine,” he said.


Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque speaks in July 2022 after an audience member accused him of something he felt was untrue during a public hearing at Walton Elementary School on proposed zoning changes. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Levesque has never hesitated to engage in public debate, and it often occurred during City Council meetings. Public comment periods at times became confrontational, especially with Levesque holding fast to the three-minute time limit. He was quick with the gavel. He also didn’t shy away from responding to comments on social media.

Ryan Smith, who attended nearly every City Council meeting in the past two years and supported Harmon for mayor, said Levesque was “extremely unprofessional and slanderous toward citizens, inside and outside of City Hall,” and Levesque “was also known for yelling at and being contentious toward citizens right after council meetings, which I both experienced for myself and witnessed firsthand.”

Levesque believes his election loss should be a “cautionary tale” for municipal leaders across the state, because despite his success in encouraging housing development, he lost.

“I pushed before it was popular. I advocated for everything (Gov. Janet Mills’) administration advocated for in a bipartisan fashion,” he said. “And not only did I get it done, it was in a way that was quantifiable and tangible. How are we going to build the housing that we need? Municipal leaders will not stick their necks out if they don’t have the support.”

Some, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, were surprised by Levesque’s loss. Levesque had worked with Collins on several issues, including recent funding for a new PAL Center in Auburn, which Levesque said continues work the council has prioritized to fight generational poverty.

“From creating opportunities for affordable housing and new businesses to guiding the city’s response to the horrific shootings in its sister city Lewiston, Mayor Levesque has shown an unwavering commitment to the Auburn community,” Collins said. “It has been a pleasure to partner with Mayor Levesque and support targeted federal investments to the city of Auburn. His dedication to Auburn is inspiring, and I thank him for all his work.”



Another issue that has torn elected officials in both cities over the last term is homelessness, especially as neither city has been able to come up with robust solutions. Auburn officials came under public pressure last winter in part because the city’s zoning ordinances do not allow overnight shelters in the city. And while the city has set up temporary warming centers during extremely cold nights, it has not created an emergency shelter while many other smaller cities have, critics say.

Asked about the response to homelessness, Levesque said it’s a complex issue and that Auburn is working on more long-term solutions.

Leading up to the November election, the city’s recycling program may also have been on voters’ minds. The city eliminated its program, then instituted a drop-off-only system, which received criticism. Then the city revived discussions, leading to the development of a new curbside program that was instituted this week. Levesque said the new program, which was renegotiated with contractor Casella, is better because of the process the city used.

“We can’t take time to look at recycling and make it better, but we need more time to not fix the lake and let it get worse? Neither one makes sense,” Levesque said.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque sits Thursday at the bar at Lost Valley Brewpub in Auburn, where he said he plans to spend more time after leaving office. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Levesque said other issues he wished he had gotten to include agreements with Lewiston over the cost of delivering drinking water, the Lewiston-Auburn Railroad Co. and the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.


Asked about the relationship between the two cities, he said none of the issues ever “started out confrontational,” but that despite some friction, it has “ended up for the better.”

“I was not trying to get one city out over the other, but we need to have fairness,” he said. “If one city does well, the other benefits.”

During his latest term, Levesque also butted heads with Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson over the county’s purchase of a large Center Street parcel for the future home of the Sheriff’s Office.

In the coming months, Levesque will oversee his recently approved housing development in downtown Lewiston, and has other plans in the works for the Peck building on Main Street, which he owns. He said he also plans to spend a lot of time at Lost Valley ski area in Auburn.

Before the election, Levesque said that if he won, he planned to run for governor in 2026. Now he’s not sure. But he said “everything is on the table.”

“First I plan to enjoy the next year of obscurity,” he said.

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