Council backs secession by Chebeague, 16 smaller islands
By Jaime McLeod
CUMBERLAND ­ During a specially scheduled executive session on Saturday that lasted nine hours, town councilors unanimously voted to allow Great Chebeague Island and 16 other Casco Bay Islands to secede from mainland Cumberland.

The tentative agreement, which depends on the completion of negotiations between island representatives and School Administrative District 51, proposes an effective date of July 1, 2007, for the separation.

The decision reversed a November vote opposing secession. Councilors stressed at that time that the negative vote was not intended to prevent secession, but to give the town the upper hand during negotiations.

Councilor Jeff Porter said he believes the tactic worked and was a primary reason for the two negotiating teams reaching an agreement in five weeks. Council Chairman Bill Stiles and Councilor George Turner have been meeting with the five secession representatives ­ Dave Stevens, Mabel Doughty, Jeff Putnam, Mark Dyer and Beverly Johnson ­ twice a week since the final week of November.

Porter, along with councilor Harland Storey, was one of the council's most outspoken critics of secessionists' inclusion of the other 16 islands within the boundaries of the proposed new town of Chebeague Island. The islands represent about $72,700 in annual property tax revenues, with Hope Island the most valuable.

"I was not opposed to Chebeague Island leaving. I laid out my concerns from the beginning and, over the course of the negotiations, they were taken care of," Porter said.

The agreement requires Chebeague Island to pay 50 percent of the property tax value of the outer islands to Cumberland for a period of 50 years.

Despite his vote to allow secession, Storey said he still disagrees with islanders' desire to leave. He said he came around to the idea of allowing Chebeague to include the other islands after realizing it would be more economical to do so.

"We still have clamming rights and fishing rights to those islands, and now we won't have to hire a harbor master for them. That's one less bill we'll have to pay," he said. He said he is satisfied that Cumberland will continue to receive a portion of property taxes from Hope Island, which Storey said could be the focal point of development in the next few years.

Chebeague Island will also be responsible for paying $1.3 million to Cumberland by the end of 2007. Porter said the payment represents a portion of the money the town has already spent on capital assets on the island. All town property on Chebeague Island will become property of the new town after secession.

Another provision makes Chebeague Island responsible for 13 percent of Cumberland's contingent and overlapping debt, in the event the notes are called for repayment.

Councilor Donna Damon, who lives on Chebeague Island and is an outspoken proponent of secession, praised both her island neighbors and her colleagues on the council for maintaining good faith throughout the negotiations process.

"You couldn't have asked for more reasonable and professional negotiations," Damon said. "... I think we should head to the Middle East, I think we could be a role model."

The secession movement gained momentum last February, after the board of School Administrative District 51 discussed the possibility of reducing the already tiny Chebeague Island School to one classroom, with fourth- and fifth-grade students to be shipped to the mainland. The kindergarten through fifth-grade school now serves the island's 22 elementary school students

Islanders argued that the closing of schools is the major factor that leads to islands ceasing to remain viable as year-round communities. Other issues included islanders' perception that their property tax burden is disproportionate to mainlanders'. Secession representatives say the inability to afford high property taxes is another factor that drives residents from the island, threatening its survival as a year-round community. In November, 86 percent of Chebeague Island voters cast their ballots in favor of secession. Mainland voters came down against secession, but not as decisively. The result was a 53 percent townwide majority in favor of secession.

Islanders now must meet with representatives from SAD 51 to lay out the terms of the separation of the island elementary school from the district. School Board members voted in December on a set of negotiating standards, one of which was that the secession should have no property tax impact on either Cumberland or North Yarmouth.

SAD 51 Chairwoman Betts Gorsky said the district hopes to negate the potential tax impact through the sale of district property on the island and possible tuition agreements for the island's sixth- through 12th-grade students.

Once an agreement is reached, islanders will send it to the state Legislature, which must ultimately approve secession.

Jaime McLeod can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or