Auburn Water District trustees vote for changes to septic tank design standards, rezoning

Auburn Water District Board Chairman Stephen Milks spoke Wednesday during a heated debate about proposed zoning changes in the Auburn Lake watershed. The meeting was held at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments on Manley Road. Rus Dillingham/Sun Magazine

AUBURN — On Wednesday, the Auburn Water District voted to change septic tank design standards in the Lake Auburn watershed and approved a measure to rezoning 148 acres along Gracelawn Avenue for commercial use.

The water district board later discussed whether to pursue a $2 million design for the water filtration plant at Lake Auburn.

Director Sid Hazelton said he was not inclined to support the move because accepting funding for the project could lead to higher client rates and preclude other bonds the region may need.

The trustees voted to refer the matter to a later meeting. The move comes after a heated two-hour discussion on several agenda items with the public, including the issue of septic tank design standards and a related controversy over the city’s agricultural zone regulations.

Ultimately, the board voted 5-1 for changes to septic tank design standards that could make installation of new systems and construction of new homes easier. The trustees discussed with the approximately 20 members of the public in attendance that a better performing system could lead to a net improvement in the lake.

On Wednesday night, Susan Brown of Auburn asked the Auburn Water District Trustee about proposed zoning changes in the Lake Auburn watershed. Rus Dillingham/Sun Magazine

Some members of the public have argued (sometimes vehemently) that the city has been pushing these things forward in the interest of development.

“We want things to be more open than they are now,” Auburn’s Fred Holler said. “I suggest you slow down. It feels like you’re pushing us a little bit.”

Some believe that water district and city officials have been keeping the public in the dark as they move forward with plans to change the rules of the watershed.

But Steve G. Milks, the city council’s representative in the water district, reminded the group that the water district meets every month. Few, if any, members of the public have ever attended.

“You were the first visitors we had,” Milks said.

There was also heated debate when the board discussed redistricting the area around the gravel pit along Gracelawn Avenue, a move that would move 148 acres of agricultural land from agricultural to general business, allowing for a range of commercial and residential uses.

Some have accused the board of paving the way for factories or other businesses in the area that could be harmful to the lake — all in the name of development.

“The redistricting of the city of Auburn is happening too fast,” Holler said. “It affects the quality of life; it affects the nature of our cities.”

Auburn Water District Superintendent Sid Hazelton on Wednesday answered questions from a group of people outraged by the policy regarding the septic system and the rezoning of the Lake Auburn watershed. Rus Dillingham/Sun Magazine

Others have accused the board of not paying enough attention to the quality of Lake Auburn’s water — an accusation that Mills vehemently disagrees with.

“I’ve lived here for over 20 years,” he said. “I’ve paid my bills, I’ve paid my taxes. My kids go to public schools here. I’ve been drinking water here. I don’t want dirty water either.”

After lengthy and sometimes disorderly discussions between the board and the public, the board unanimously voted to change the boundaries of the watershed so that the 148 acres surrounding the gravel pit are no longer in it. They also agreed that a study should be undertaken to address any environmental concerns.

Earlier this month, the city council gave preliminary approval to the rezoning move.

The meeting cooled off towards the end, but when it ended, some remained concerned that there was too much emphasis on development when protecting the watershed should be a bigger issue.

Auburn’s Peter Dingley said he was concerned that development along Gracelawn Avenue could be just the start of rapid and potentially unhealthy growth in the area.

On Wednesday, Auburn’s Pam Rousseau asked the Auburn Water District’s trustees about the changes to the rezoning of the Lake Auburn watershed. The meeting was held at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Government offices on Manley Road. Rus Dillingham/Sun Magazine

“This may be just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

City leaders said Auburn is leading a statewide effort to increase housing opportunities in the area. Others, however, fear that other commercial businesses may soon follow and the area around Lake Auburn will become overcrowded.

“People are upset,” said Auburn City Councilman Belinda Gerry, “because it’s going so fast.”

Others, however, said the water district’s move Wednesday night opened the door to many improvements across the city.

Mayor Jason Levesque was at another meeting and did not attend. But when he was later informed of the progress of the meeting, the mayor was delighted.

“It was a big night,” he said. “It’s actually huge. We’re going to end up solving the city’s problems based on a combination of common sense, facts and science.”

The meeting concluded with a proposed $2 million water filtration plant design that served as an anti-climax after the previous fireworks. No action has been taken on the matter other than to review the history of the concept.

Towards the end of 2021, the trustees directed Hazelton to file a request with the Maine Drinking Water Program, which has a revolving loan fund that forgives some principal. In Auburn’s case, the loan could forgive $500,000, turning a $2.5 million design project into $2 million.

On Wednesday, Auburn Water District trustees Dan Bilodo (right) and Syd Hazelton (left) had a heated exchange about proposed regulations for a new septic system in Lake Auburn. The meeting was held at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Government offices on Manley Road. Rus Dillingham/Sun Magazine

The Water District has abandoned filtration since 1991, allowing it to treat water with UV light and other means without paying for filtration. But it must continue to meet certain water quality standards to maintain the exemption.

If the water district is to move forward with plans for a new filtration plant, officials said a pilot program will be developed to test what type of filtration system is needed in the lake. In past discussions, Hazelton has said that the estimated cost of building a filtration plant is about $40 million.

Tempers had cooled by the end of the Androsco King Valley Council of Government meeting on Manly Road on Wednesday, with the board chatting amicably with residents before the executive meeting took a break.

“I appreciate everyone’s comments,” Milks said. “I really want to.”

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