Thursday, April 6, 2006

Chebeague wins independence

By TOM BELL, Portland Press Herald Writer

Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski
Holding a bouquet, Donna Damon, Chebeague's member of the Cumberland Town Council, boards the ferry to the island Wednesday after traveling to Augusta for the secession vote.

Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski
Beverly Johnson has a smile on her face Wednesday after returning from Augusta and getting off the ferry on Chebeague Island, her longtime home. Johnson and other islanders went to the State House to lobby for secession from Cumberland.

AUGUSTA - Chebeague Island residents may want to circle the 5th of April on their calendars. That's the date when they won their independence. On Wednesday, Gov. John Baldacci signed into law a bill that allows Casco Bay's largest island to secede from the town of Cumberland. The governor's signature followed lopsided votes earlier in the day in the House and Senate.

"It's time for us to row our own boat," said island resident Donna Damon after the Senate voted 31-3 to pass the bill. The House vote was 131-1.

William Stiles, chairman of the Cumberland Town Council, said the separation is a sad turn of events for him and many mainland residents. But he praised the islanders for the open and honest manner in which they dealt with town and school officials.

"In my heart of hearts, I think this is a bad thing overall," he said. "But I wish them well."

Chebeague Island will become a town on July 1, 2007.

Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland, the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, warned that independence combined with gentrification will eventually transform the island into a "property tax haven for the wealthy."

He said the breakup will let the Cumberland-North Yar- mouth school district receive as much as $1 million more in state money, at the expense of other school districts.

If Maine is going to lower its tax burden and provide services more efficiently, he said, it needs fewer units of government, not more.

But island residents had convinced lawmakers that their year-round community of about 350 people would be threatened if it remained part of Cumberland. The driving issue, islanders said, is keeping a school on the island.

The secession effort, the fourth since 1980, began as a tax revolt in 2002 after a property revaluation led to a sharp increase in tax assessments on the island. But the movement didn't gain wide support until a year ago, when School Administrative District 51 proposed downsizing the island's tiny elementary school.

Islanders feared that SAD 51 might eventually close the school, pushing families off the island and dooming it as a year-round community, said Damon, who is a Cumberland town councilor.

She said she had warned school officials that the proposal would ignite the secession movement. "They didn't understand that this would push people over the edge."

Fifteen islanders traveled to Augusta on Wednesday to lobby for the bill and watch the votes. A turning point came in the Senate, when Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who had previously spoken against the bill, announced that he had changed his mind.

He said he always opposes secession efforts that are aimed at lowering taxes. "The motive here seems a little different," Martin said. "It's a community that wants to keep its small school."

As she listened from the corner of the Senate chamber, 83-year-old island resident Mabel Doughty said she realized that the speech by Martin, a former House speaker, would deliver Chebeague its independence.

"That was powerful," she said. "He's the state of Maine practically."

After the final vote, the islanders hugged each other. Some struggled to hold back tears.

Dave Stevens, 58, a mechanic from the island, had been going to Augusta every day to lobby lawmakers.

"I learned the system works," he said. "The people in the Maine Legislature are willing to listen and do the right thing."

After the Senate vote, Turner congratulated island residents and promised to give them U.S. and Maine flags that have flown at the State House to fly over their new town hall.

"The hardest part is ahead," he warned them.

Damon said she is confident that the island can form and maintain its own government. "It's scary, going forward. We have a lot of work to do," she said.

She said the islanders will work hard to make sure Chebeague doesn't become an exclusive summer resort. "We will not let that happen. It's in our power."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 623-1031 or at: