Thursday, April 6, 2006

Historic news spreads fast among islanders

By TREVOR MAXWELL, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Chebeague resident Sharon Bowman: "The town of Cumberland was so out of touch with the island and the lifestyle. They just don't know what we need."

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND - The ferry rides blend together if you've lived here for a while, a familiar repetition of waves and the rumble of diesel engines. Wednesday was different.

News was spreading about the vote at the State House. And when Beverly Johnson showed up at the mainland wharf at 4 p.m., the dozen islanders waiting there smiled and patted her on the back, as wet snow fell on their shoulders.

"We did it," said Johnson, a plumber who helped lead the island's effort to secede from the town of Cumberland.

Then, as she's done countless times, Johnson took a seat on the ferry. This time she was bringing home news of a historic vote. Johnson was in Augusta earlier Wednesday, where the Legislature overwhelmingly approved Chebeague Island's request for independence, after 185 years tied to the mainland.

It wouldn't take long for everyone to find out. Most of the 350 year-rounders have relatives and deep roots on the island. It's a place where residents help carry groceries from the docks and don't think twice about handing off car keys to a neighbor.

"By the end of the day, everybody will know," said Sharon Bowman, returning home from her teaching job in Topsham. "I just heard it up in the parking lot."

For Bowman and the majority that supported secession, Wednesday felt like the beginning of something great.

"The town of Cumberland was so out of touch with the island and the lifestyle," Bowman said. "They just don't know what we need."

That sentiment took firm hold here over the past year as secession leaders negotiated with officials in Cumberland and studied whether islanders had the resources and commitment necessary to pull this off. In a nonbinding vote in November, 86 percent of island voters supported secession.

"I would hope that we're going to find a little more response to people's needs," said Ken Hamilton, who has lived here for all of his life.

Hamilton taught at the island's school for 25 years and served on the Cumberland Town Council in the 1970s. Back then, the family saw no need to break away.

When people started talking about downsizing the island school, though, they agreed that independence was the best option.

"We'll finally have some say in what we want to happen," said Hamilton's wife, Jeanette.

In some ways, Chebeague is a microcosm of the southern Maine coast. Soaring real estate values have driven up taxes and attracted a fair share of wealthy newcomers. But dozens of multigenerational families remain. Many depend on trades like lobstering and building, and they're determined to maintain traditions.

Some feel secession will take the island in the wrong direction.

"I still don't think it's the right move," said Patti Rich, who grew up here. "I think it has divided Chebeague a lot already, and it will make it even worse now."

Rich said the November vote was supposed to be nonbinding, but there was never another islandwide vote. The opposition is larger than it might appear, Rich said, because some people are afraid to upset the majority.

Billy Calthorpe plans to leave Chebeague with his wife and children, in part because of the secession. He expects taxes will go up much more than the 5 percent that secession leaders predict, and he sees division growing.

"The whole idea was to make it attractive for younger families. I don't see how this is going to do that," Calthorpe said. "I think you will see a mass exodus."

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: