AUBURN – City officials are considering updates to the septic design standard in the Lake Auburn drainage basin after a recent study showed that a new standard could help keep harmful nutrients out of the lake.
However, the proposal should rekindle the debate on developments in the watershed.
City officials said this week that applying 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” of the lake even with ancillary systems installed.
The lake is the source of drinking water for Auburn and Lewiston.
The study, which was handed to officials late last year, said the septic standard used in the Lake Auburn Watershed Overlay District is limiting development of a significant portion of the catchment area by “effectively banning the use of innovative and alternative septic systems and lye field designs . ”
“These innovative and alternative designs are otherwise government approved and can achieve comparable or better nutrient removal than a traditional system and leach field,” the report said.
Eric Cousens, director of planning and approval, said the current standard requires a 36-inch layer of soil between the surface and what is known as the “limiting factor” which is either groundwater or bedrock. Most standards require 12 inches, he said.
Cousens said some properties simply cannot meet the standard to install a system because Auburn’s standard does not allow the use of alternative floors. However, the standard does not produce the best results either, and alternative soils could be used that drain more slowly and filter out nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus harmful to the lake.
One of the recommendations of the study was that Auburn respect the minimum depth of 36 inches while allowing the use of alternative septic designs. The proposal was included in the updated master plan, which was approved by the Council at the end of its term last year and sent to the Planning Committee last week.
The Auburn Water District Board of Trustees is also due to discuss the proposal at its next meeting.
Cousens said he expected some resistance to the change, but said the current standard does not “use the best science on wastewater”, it simply makes many plots undevelopable.
He said that because of the restrictive standard, some people who cannot install a system on their land end up buying neighboring properties that might meet the standard, but it “places systems in areas that are not being treated as well as they are could. ”
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 rules for the catchment area. Officials said they hoped it would provide data to support a year-long debate on watershed protection and additional development.
A summary of the report said that additional development in the watershed would provide “minimal net economic benefit to all affected stakeholders,” but also recommended a new septic design that could result in more homes there.
An “expansion analysis” in the study showed that more than 100 additional new apartments could be built in the catchment area if the requirements for the sewage system were revised, but the study also addresses the “contradiction”.
The advisory group asked whether the city’s existing standard for the protection of water quality is effective or whether the water quality advantage is “the de facto limitation of the buildable areas in the catchment area”.
Cousens said the goal is to build better systems during the new build, but also to use the standard when people are replacing old wastewater treatment plants. He said the standard should lead to systems that offer better treatment and have a longer lifespan.
“With our recommended revision, we aim to ensure that the septic tank design standard fulfills its stated purpose of effectively regulating both the construction of new septic tanks and the replacement of existing sewage treatment plants as they age, so that systems with alternative technologies and innovative phosphorus controls can be phased out a “, says the study. “Restrictions on arable land are better left to site and resource protection zoning than septic design standards.”
When the city council passed a series of zoning proposals to the planning committee last week, councilor Rick Whiting moved that the discussion of septic tank needs be considered secondary. He argued that the planning committee would be given “further instructions” to review the entire lake study.
During the discussion, Cousens said he was working with the CEO to schedule additional meetings. He said some public hearings on proposed changes would require public notices to about 2,000 residents.
Mayor Jason Levesque said last week that “by adopting the state standard and implementing new, gentle development standards, we can make the lake better”.
Levesque also said residents should keep in mind that the watershed encompasses many areas that are not on the lake, including remote towns that he believes should adopt new standards as well.
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