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Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Revaluation sparks talk of Chebeague secession

Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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Staff photo by Doug Jones

"We are sick and tired of being second-class citizens," says Leon Hamilton, referring to the possibility that Chebeague Island gain its independence from Cumberland.

CUMBERLAND — Chebeague Island residents, angered by revaluation that will double the taxes on many waterfront parcels, are talking about seceding from the town of Cumberland. A group of island residents will host a meeting this month that will feature representatives from Long Island, which parted ways with the city of Portland nine years ago.

The group is also working on other measures to win relief, ranging from revamping the state constitution to helping individual landowners challenge their assessments. Group leaders say the upcoming session with Long Islanders is a chance to learn whether secession is an option worth pursuing.

Chebeague has about 325 year- round residents and a summer population of 1,700. It is larger, wealthier and more populated than neighboring Long Island. But a state law implemented after Long Island's split from Portland means that winning independence would be much more difficult, said Ken Cole III, the lawyer who helped Cumberland fend off the secession attempt of nearby Hope Island, which is populated by two people.

Nevertheless, emotions on Chebeague are running high, says Leon Hamilton, a member of the group called "Save Our Island." Hamilton is a ferry captain for the Chebeague Island Transportation Co. He says many of his passengers have been talking about secession since a July 22 Town Council meeting.

At that meeting, the council endorsed the revaluation and refused to allow the councilor from Chebeague, Donna Damon, to present a videotape that showed what she believed was a misleading sales pitch by the Massachusetts firm that did the revaluation.

Hamilton says many islanders were insulted by the council's actions that night.

"We are sick and tired of being treated as second-class citizens," he said. "We will do whatever we can to save our island, this community. The town of Cumberland will not step on us."

Islanders have talked about secession for years, but never as seriously as now, says David Hill, also a member of Save Our Island.

"It's something to be considered, not rushed into lightly," he said. "A lot of research has to be done as to what options are available to us."

Save Our Island meets weekly at the island hall. The core group includes about six people, each heading different committees such as legislative, legal and communications. Its biweekly electronic newsletter has more than 83 subscribers

The group believes that rising property taxes will force working people off the island and destroy its year-round community, says Pam Curran, one of the leaders. Several of the leaders own waterfront property.

A significant obstacle, Hill says, is that Chebeague also would have to break with School Administrative District 51.

The school district spends a lot more tax money than Cumberland's town government, he says, and Chebeague taxpayers won't get any relief unless they also secede from the district.

Damon downplays talk of sec- ession.

"There is no organized secession movement," she said. "People are looking for information. There may be one in the future, but right now people are just curious about how it is on Long Island."

She questions whether Chebeague residents have the energy and will to run their own government and sustain it.

"My concern is, who will do the work?" she asked. "It's a lot different than starting a nonprofit organization. It's not the hobby-of-the-month club. You're in it for the long haul."

The value of Chebeague's real estate is $102 million - about 12 percent of Cumberland's total tax base. In comparison, Long Island's real estate is worth $48 million.

Mark Greene, a leader of Long Island's secession movement, lives on the eastern tip of Long Island, less than a mile away from Chebeague. Greene plans to travel to Chebeague on his 17-foot Boston whaler to attend the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 28.

Chebeague has enough people and resources to be on its own, Greene says.

"This is a very personal thing that each community has to grapple with itself," he said. "This is totally a local decision. Nobody from the outside can tell you it's a good or bad idea."

This would not be the first secession attempt by Chebeague. In 1834, upset with a new town hall location that was seen as too far inland, residents from Chebeague and the Foreside introduced a motion to secede at their town meeting. They lost, 94 to 49.

Cumberland Town Council Chairman Jeff Porter opposes secession and says Chebeague is an important part of the town's history and identity. Because Chebeague has a seat on the council, islanders always have the opportunity to make the council aware of issues that are important to them, he says.

"I would hate to see them leave," he said. "It's a mistake to break up the town."

Only the Legislature has the authority to split Chebeague from Cumberland. In the past, seces- sionists appealed directly to the Legislature for independence. But weary of divisive secession bills, the Legislature four years ago created a law that requires municipalities to hold a public hearing and then an election. Afterward, if officials refuse to support secession, the town and secession leaders must hire a mediator and try to work out an agreement.

If no agreement is reached after six months, secessionists are then allowed to appeal to the Legislature. Cole, the attorney, says he doubts the Legislature will approve a secession bill after such a process.

The mediator working with Cumberland and Hope Island's residents concluded in June that the two sides could not reach agreement. The issue has yet to be taken to the Legislature.

Staff Writer Tom Bell may be reached at 791-6369 or at:

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