PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Lewiston filed a civil lawsuit against the Auburn Water District on Thursday over an ongoing dispute about a proposed rezoning plan around Lake Auburn, the region's primary source of potable water.
The lawsuit escalates an already contentious issue between city government. Auburn city leaders have been considering whether to rezone acreage that currently falls within the Lake Auburn watershed boundary and allow for more development.
The proposal for rezoning centers around approximately 148 acres that was included in the boundaries drawn up for the Auburn Lake watershed decades ago. However, according to a study commissioned by the city of Auburn, researchers instead found that runoff from the acreage in question, which includes a gravel pit and landfill, actually flows away from Lake Auburn and toward the Androscoggin River.
"By rezoning this into commercial out of the watershed zone, we can now actually have good development: residential, light commercial, retail. We can have appropriate retention ponds, grass, trees, buffers," Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque told NEWS CENTER Maine back in April. "We can actually limit the amount of runoff that’s going into the Androscoggin River."
The Lake Auburn watershed stretches into Buckfield, Turner, Hebron, Minot, and East Auburn, and it is the only source of drinking water for Lewiston and Auburn.
The lake is currently exempted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from a requirement to filter water because of its high quality.
However, the 2021 study commissioned by the city of Auburn suggests that there have been signs in recent years of "declining water quality [that] have given rise to public calls for actions that would upend the status quo of the last several decades."
As a result of this study, which was conducted by FB Environmental Associates, Horsley Witten Group, and the University of Maine, Auburn leaders developed a plan according to the suggestions outlined in the report to ensure the longevity of the water quality into the future.
Lewiston city leaders have recently escalated their public dispute over Auburn's proposal for rezoning and development, expressing concerns that the plan would negatively affecting water quality in Lake Auburn.
This dispute reached a boiling point Thursday, when the city of Lewiston filed a lawsuit against the Auburn Water District.
A news release reportedly written on behalf of Lewiston city councilors and Mayor Carl Sheline was issued the same day.
"On March 31, 2022, Lewiston asked the Auburn Water District to adopt a moratorium on future development in the Lake Auburn watershed, unless and until a study showed that there would be no adverse effects on the quality of the region's drinking water," the release states. "To date, Auburn Water District has not responded to the request and has refused to discuss or negotiate the matter with Lewiston."
Auburn's mayor told NEWS CENTER Maine Thursday evening that the claim Lewiston hasn't been welcomed into the discussion a "lie."
"The insinuation that Auburn hasn't been a good partner with regards to water quality is false," Levesque said. "Lewiston and Auburn have a shared responsibility for the lake, and for the last 17 years, we've been told we need to fix the quality of the water, and we've done so. Lewiston's policy has been a do nothing and hope for the best policy, and those don't work."
Levesque also told NEWS CENTER Maine that discussions with the city council are delayed until July, when new data models come from the lake.
"Unfortunately this feels like this is something the city of Lewiston is doing to distract people from their lack of inactivity to their own social and economic issues," Levesque said.
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