Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Accord advances secession by island

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

After weeks of stalemate, Cumberland town officials and residents of Chebeague Island have worked out a tentative agreement for dividing up town assets and debts should the island secede.

Among highlights of the agreement, worked out this weekend in a marathon negotiating session between the Town Council and island representatives, is a provision that would allow Chebeague to take with it 16 small islands or parts of islands. In exchange, for the next 50 years Chebeague would pay the town half of the property taxes the small islands generate.

Also under the agreement, which the council unanimously approved, Chebeague would pay Cumberland $1.3 million for a variety of town assets it receives, such as town-owned land on the island and a new firetruck just purchased for Chebeague.

Taxes are expected to remain stable on the mainland if the agreement holds and projected state school funding figures are on target, said Town Manager William Shane.

"It is a good settlement for both sides," Shane said.

David Stevens, one of the island negotiators, said taxes there also shouldn't increase because Chebeague plans to run itself on the $2 million in taxes it pays each year to Cumberland.

"I'm pleased we were able to work together and come to a conclusion that both sides were satisfied with," Stevens said.

The pact is a leap forward in the island's quest to cut its 185-year ties to Cumberland. Residents of the largest unbridged island in Casco Bay say they need to be self-governing for their year-round community of 350 people to survive.

They still must negotiate with the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district, from which they plan to separate, on issues such as school debt and where Chebeague students will go to school. The council won't vote on a final agreement with islanders until those negotiations, which start this week, are successfully completed.

Betts Gorsky, chairwoman of the Maine School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors, said Monday that the board's ground rule is that island secession can't mean higher taxes for Cumberland or North Yarmouth.

With town negotiations complete, islanders will be able to go to the Legislature this session for a final vote on whether the island may secede.

"One step at a time, but this was a major hurdle," said Donna Damon, a town councilor and island resident.

The island secession movement began last spring, when the school district proposed downsizing the island elementary school. Islanders feared the school would close and young families would abandon the community.

In a Nov. 8 referendum on secession, 86 percent of island voters supported leaving Cumberland. On the mainland, however, 53 percent of voters were opposed. Both votes were advisory, but the positive island vote set the secession process in motion.

Just three weeks later, the Town Council voted 6-1 against secession. Damon, the only councilor to support secession, said then that she feared the council was trying to gain the upper hand in negotiations. Both sides predicted talks would take a long time and perhaps require mediation.

Damon was amazed at how quickly things changed. Damon, Shane and others said the key to the successful outcome was getting the entire council, not just its negotiation team, to meet face-to-face with island negotiators at a private session Saturday.

The meeting began at 9 a.m. and didn't end until the council voted at 5:20 p.m., Shane said. Both sides shook hands afterward, he said. "There was a lot of emotion in the room," he said.

Damon gave special credit to Councilor Jeffrey Porter for "creatively negotiating." Porter had been an outspoken critic of Chebeague's plan to take the so-called outer islands with it. Islanders said the small islands, most of which are uninhabited or don't have year-round residents, share common needs and concerns with Chebeague. But Porter said their leaving would mean a loss of tax revenue for Cumberland.

On Monday, Porter said he is pleased with the new agreement because it's fair to Cumberland taxpayers. "(Islanders) are having to pay for those islands," he said.

The islands will pay the town half of the taxes the islands generate, currently $72,000 per year. Chebeague could also work out a lump sum payment with the town. Mainland residents will retain clamming and fishing rights on the islands, which helped satisfy Councilor Harland Storey, who had opposed the loss of the islands.

Two islands closer to town, Basket and Sturdivant, would remain part of Cumberland.

The town and islanders still have to work out numerous other details, Shane said. They include whether Chebeague would join Cumberland and Yarmouth in sharing a town assessor and code enforcement officer.

Cumberland's lease of its Route 1 parking lot to the Chebeague Transportation Co. for its shuttle bus to the ferry also is among items still being discussed.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: