Lewiston and Auburn mayors at odds in farm zone, Lake Auburn debate
AUBURN — It was clear following a legislative public hearing this week that Mayor Jason Levesque was unhappy.
He was surprised by testimony from Lewiston officials, particularly Mayor Carl Sheline, who questioned legislation that would remove a longstanding building restriction in Auburn’s agricultural zone.
According to Lévesque, this will increase housing options in an area that desperately needs it.
“Stay on your side of the river, last I heard you had your own set of issues that need your attention,” Levesque said at the end of a lengthy Facebook post.
During her testimony Monday on LD 1884, Sheline argued that the bill would lead to more development in the Lake Auburn watershed, potentially affecting the lake’s water quality and possibly requiring cities to build an expensive processing plant.
Lévesque’s public response to Sheline and Lewiston officials underscores years of friction between the two towns over costs associated with the lake, which is the two towns’ source of drinking water. And at home in Auburn, Lévesque is already in the midst of a rocky process to update zoning standards that Lévesque says will encourage the construction of new housing for low- and middle-income families.
The uproar over the legislation has brought these two fronts together.
Auburn officials are hosting a Tuesday night briefing on proposed updates to watershed protections, including a new septic design standard. The meeting agenda also includes a discussion of LD 1884, as well as recent recommendations from a state housing commission that urged municipalities to review zoning laws.
Sheline told the Sun Journal on Wednesday that he and city staff only care about the well-being of the lake, which uses a filtration waiver that prevents the two cities from having to build the expensive filtration plant. He also disagrees that the bill could help make housing more affordable for the majority of people.
“Lake Auburn provides drinking water to both towns and as Mayor of Lewiston, I believe it is only reasonable and appropriate to respond to proposed state legislation that affects the lake and watershed. surroundings,” he said. “And judging by testimony from Monday’s hearing, the majority of Auburn residents are equally concerned about the future of Lake Auburn.”
Sheline added that Auburn’s push for LD 1884 and the new septic standards “indicate an overarching development goal for Lake Auburn.” I think these efforts are misguided and concern for water quality should be paramount.
Levesque argued that legislation aside, Auburn is conducting a transparent process to update archaic rules surrounding the watershed and agricultural zone. He said while the new septic standards may result in a small number of new homes being built, the overall result will be a healthier lake.
He addressed the water rate debate in his Facebook post on Tuesday, saying, “You see every ratepayer in Auburn has paid more in taxes (and rent) and on our water bills to subsidize Lewiston’s low fares.”
Last year, the back and forth over water rates continued with a formal complaint filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. In the complaint, Auburn ratepayers said it was unfair for the cities to split the costs 50/50 when Lewiston uses about 60% of the water.
As for agricultural zone legislation, the bill would make it illegal for municipalities to use income requirements as a condition for building homes — requirements that Auburn has used in its agricultural zone since the 1960s. From Monday’s public hearing, several people argued that the income standard has been helpful in limiting development to the city’s urban core, where there are services. New development in rural areas would be expensive and likely unaffordable, Sheline said.
But Lévesque says they don’t see the whole picture and that he has been painted as a villain by a small group of people for questioning a land use policy he believes is discriminatory. The rule states that to build a house in the zone, an individual must derive at least 30% of their income from agriculture.
In his Facebook post referencing LD 1884, Levesque said Sheline “apparently thinks discrimination is okay as long as Lewiston doesn’t have to pay more for water.”
In response, Sheline said on Wednesday, “The proponents of LD 1884 are using very loaded language to describe their lofty goals for this bill when in reality it will likely result in development that will be anything but affordable.”
Levesque said Wednesday that Auburn and the region need more “accessible” housing options in the city. He said he didn’t want to see the whole agricultural area develop into single-family homes on large plots.
“It’s the worst planning model in the world,” he said. “But they prevent any meaningful dialogue or compromise on solutions that could improve the city.”
The bill will soon see a working session in Augusta, after which the Labor and Housing Committee will make a recommendation.
In Auburn, zoning discussions continue between the planning board and the city council.
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