AUBURN — City officials are considering updates to the septic design standard in the Lake Auburn watershed after a recent study showed a new standard could help keep harmful nutrients out of the lake.
However, the proposal is likely to reignite the debate about development in the watershed.
City officials said this week that using the proposed standard would likely make it easier to install new systems and build new homes, but said the more powerful systems could achieve a “net improvement” in the lake, even with supplemental systems installed.
The lake is the source of drinking water for Auburn and Lewiston.
The study, released to officials late last year, says the effluent standard used in the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay District restricts development on a significant portion of the watershed by “effectively prohibiting the use of innovative and alternative effluent systems and leach field designs.” ”
“These innovative and alternative designs are otherwise permitted by the state and can achieve comparable or better nutrient removal than a conventional system and leach field,” the report states.
Eric Cousens, director of planning and permitting, said the current standard requires a 36-inch layer of soil between the surface and the so-called “limiting factor,” which is either groundwater or bedrock. Most standards call for 12 inches, he said.
Cousens said that because Auburn’s standard does not allow the use of alternative soil, some lots simply may not meet the standard to install a system. But, he said, the standard hasn’t yielded the best results either, and alternative soils that drain more slowly and filter out nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that are harmful to the lake could be used.
The study’s recommendations included that Auburn maintain the minimum depth requirement of 36 inches while allowing the use of alternative septic designs. The proposal was included in the updated comprehensive plan approved by the Council last year at the end of its term and referred to the Planning Committee for consideration last week.
The Auburn Water District Board of Trustees is also scheduled to consider the proposal at its next meeting.
Cousens said he expects some resistance to the change, but said the current standard isn’t “using the best science for sewage,” it simply makes plots unbuildable.
He said that because of the restrictive standard, some people who can’t install a system on their land end up buying neighboring properties that could meet the standard, but it means “putting systems in areas that aren’t being treated as well, how they could be. ”
The Lake Auburn study, conducted by FB Environmental, the Horsley Witten Group and the University of Maine, was commissioned by the city to analyze the watershed rules. Officials said they hoped it would provide data to inform a years-long debate about watershed protection and additional development.
A summary of the report said that additional development in the watershed would bring “minimal net economic benefits to all stakeholders concerned” but also recommended a new septic design that could result in more homes there.
A “fitout analysis” in the study found that more than 100 additional new homes could be built in the watershed if the septic tank requirements were revised, but the study also addresses the “contradiction.”
The Advisory Group questioned whether the city’s existing standard for protecting water quality is effective, or whether the benefit of water quality is “the de facto limitation of buildable land in the watershed”?
Cousens said the goal is to build better systems during new construction, but also use the standard when people replace old septic systems. He said the standard should result in systems that offer better treatment and last longer.
“With our recommended revision, we aim to ensure that the septic tank design standard achieves its stated purpose of effectively regulating both the construction of new wastewater treatment plants and the replacement of existing wastewater treatment plants as they age, allowing systems with alternative technologies and innovative phosphorus controls to be phased in.” “, says the study. “Restrictions on arable land are better left to soil and resource conservation zoning than to septic design standards.”
Last week, as the City Council submitted a number of zoning change proposals to the Planning Committee, Councilman Rick Whiting moved that discussion of septic tank requirements be considered a secondary priority. He argued that the planning committee should receive a “more comprehensive directive” to review the entire sea study.
During the discussion, Cousens said he was working with the chief executive officer to schedule additional meetings. He said some public hearings on proposed changes would require public notices for about 2,000 residents.
Mayor Jason Levesque said last week that “we can make the lake better by adopting the state standard and implementing new low-impact development standards.”
Levesque also said residents should keep in mind that the watershed includes much non-lake area, including outlying towns, which he believes should adopt new standards as well.
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