AUBURN, Maine — Plans to relocate the Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office to a new location across town in Auburn hit a roadblock on Wednesday.
At its meeting Wednesday evening, the Auburn City Council voted 5-1 to adopt a moratorium on development proposals involving public safety facilities, detention facilities, or correctional facilities at a site on which one currently does not exist.
"This 6-month moratorium will allow us the time to make sure we engage all stakeholders and that we're bringing everyone to the table so that we can have the best possible outcome, not just for the county, but for the City of Auburn," Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said.
Auburn's City Council decision to adopt a moratorium comes just days after the Androscoggin County Commissioners approved a plan to use more than $4.5 million of American Rescue Plan Acts funds to purchase the former Evergreen Subaru location in Auburn, to be transformed into the new sheriff's office.
"We lack a lot of things that a public safety building should have," Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said. "A classroom, debriefing rooms, appropriately-sized evidence rooms. So the building has its shortcomings, and you can't make up the square footage."
Samson said the current location of the sheriff's office on the corner of Turner and Court Streets in Auburn has been housing the department for roughly 150 years.
He added, according to a study conducted by Harriman and Associates, which is working closely with Androscoggin County to identify and develop a new location, the sheriff's office is currently operating in roughly 9000 square feet of space, but it should be using more than 21,000 square feet.
"They absolutely deserve better working conditions. Nobody can doubt that. But we want to make sure that we have an engagement process that's transparent, transformative, and brings everyone together to understand the scope of the project," Levesque said.
In a news release last week, Auburn City Manager Phil Crowell stated that the city’s current ordinances governing land use, zoning, site plan review, and special exception review do not "adequately or specifically address public safety facilities, detention facilities, or correctional facilities."
Crowell also expressed concerns that a new facility could pose serious threats to the residents' public health, safety, and welfare and nearby businesses.
"Auburn is in the middle, right now, of the most comprehensive and progressive zoning reform in Maine's history," Levesque said. "We've done this over the past two years and in a very transparent fashion, with really great levels of public engagement. Something of this significance in our downtown, in a gateway to our city, and the possible inclusion of a prison, needs to have the same thoroughness and transparent lens applied."
Samson said the current plan does not call for relocating the Androscoggin County Jail at this time. He hoped to have the patrol division, civil division, communications, and dispatch relocated to the proposed facility at the former Evergreen Subaru site.
"A site like that would allow us to develop a facility that could probably serve the community well into the future, hopefully for another 150 years," Samson said.
Samson added if the sheriff's office does relocate, it would provide easier access in and out of the facility, as it's away from the busy downtown area.
"It's two miles up the road from our current location. It takes us out of the congested downtown area and puts us on Route 4," Samson said.
According to Samson, this location would provide easier access to the department's neighboring towns and avoid busy areas like downtown Lewiston and Auburn.
The sheriff's office relocation plan is still in preliminary stages, and the Androscoggin County Commissioners have only approved using ARPA funds to purchase the Evergreen Subaru site. If the moratorium is lifted, the plan will still need to be presented to and approved by the Auburn Planning Board.
Samson said he's optimistic that this project will move forward, and the department will eventually be moved to an updated, more spacious facility.
"I'm just hopeful that we can move forward, resolve issues with the City of Auburn, and any concerns they have," Samson said.