Saturday, March 4, 2006

Chebeague Island makes its case for independence

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Staff photo by Derek Davis
Althea Dougliss of Chebeague Island reads to her son Henry Hall, 2, and friend Hannah Birkett, 3, at the Cross Office Building in Augusta. Her husband, Charles Hall, facing away, wears a Chebeague Island School shirt.

Staff photo by Derek Davis
Julia Maine, 11, a Chebeague resident, speaks in favor of the island's secession bill Friday at a legislative hearing in Augusta.

Staff photo by Derek Davis
Martha Hamilton, 83, of Chebeague Island addresses the State and Local Government Committee during Friday's hearing in Augusta on a bill to let the island secede from Cumberland.

Staff photo by Derek Davis
Jennifer Belesca of Chebeague Island tells members of a legislative committee Friday why she supports island efforts to secede from the town of Cumberland. Belesca was among three dozen people attending a public hearing in Augusta on an act to authorize secession.

AUGUSTA - Chebeague Island should be allowed to secede from Cumberland so it can remain a year-round community instead of becoming a summer colony like so many other Maine islands, secession backers told state lawmakers on Friday. "I sincerely believe that this is the last chance to keep this island community, older than the nation itself, from slipping away into history," Chris Rich, a lifelong island resident, told the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee.

But two of Rich's siblings - his sisters Patti Rich and Kim Martin - urged legislators to oppose the bill. Patti Rich said that she doesn't believe the island can run itself financially, and that the primary motivation for secession is taxes. "It's dividing the island," she said.

The two women were among only a handful of people at Friday's public hearing who expressed opposition to the bill, which would permit Chebeague to cut its 185-year-old ties with Cumberland.

Most of the approximately three dozen people who spoke strongly favored passage. Supporters at the five-hour hearing included many islanders, state legislators and Cumberland town councilors. The head of the Island Institute, a nonprofit institute in Rockland that provides advice and support to Maine's islands, also spoke in favor of the bill.

Their arguments were so persuasive that the House chairman of the committee, Rep. Christopher Barstow, D-Gorham, said after the hearing that he believes a "strong majority" of his committee will vote in favor of the bill at a work session scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday. The bill then would go the full Legislature for a vote.

Islanders who support secession hope Chebeague, whose history dates back more than 250 years, can become a town as of July 1, 2007.

The effort to secede from Cumberland began last spring after the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district proposed downsizing the island's tiny elementary school.

Islanders feared that meant that School Administrative District 51 might eventually close the school. They said that would cause young families to move away and bring about the downfall of their year-round community of about 350 people.

Chebeague is now one of only 15 year-round island communities in Maine, down from about 300 such communities a century ago.

In a nonbinding vote in November, 86 percent of island voters approved seceding from Cumberland. And islanders recently forged financial agreements with the town and the school district on how to divide up debts and assets after secession without raising taxes on the mainland.

Part of the island's agreement with the town requires Chebeague to pay Cumberland 50 percent of the taxes that will be generated by the 16 small islands and parts of islands Chebeague plans to take it with it.

Chebeague islanders say their own taxes wouldn't decrease, and could climb as much as 5 percent. They say their secession effort is not about taxes, but about a desire to govern themselves and control their own school and future.

Jennifer Belesca, whose family has been on the island for 10 generations, fondly recalled her education at the island school, and said that without secession her two boys might not get the same experience.

"I'm here today because I'm afraid that there might not be a school on the island for my children to attend," she told lawmakers.

Philip Conkling, founder and president of the Island Institute, told the panel that the organization rarely takes a position for or against island secession. However, he said, "we think Chebeague Island is different from other islands (seeking secession)."

Conkling said the island is not only geographically isolated from Cumberland, but said islanders in recent years have proved their independence by building their own recreation center and elderly-care facility, and added to their library and historical society.

Some legislators have expressed concerns about creating a new town at a time when Maine is trying to regionalize and consolidate government services.

But Dave Stevens, one of the leaders of the secession movement, said that Chebeague aims to cooperate with other communities to save money and operate efficiently.

"Give us a chance and we'll show the big guys how to do it," he said.

For example, he said, Chebeague plans to contract with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office for patrol services, share school administrators and staff with Long Island, and contract with Cumberland for fire and ambulance services.

Barstow said such testimony helped convince him to favor the bill. "I could not find a reason not to support secession," Barstow said.

He and other lawmakers said a key to their support is the fact that islanders got Cumberland and SAD 51 to agree to their leaving.

Stephen Moriarty, a Cumberland town councilor, told the panel that when he got over his initial shock that islanders wanted to separate, he came to feel it was "sensible and justifiable."

Moriarty called islanders "self-reliant, independent and committed" and urged the Legislature to support the bill.

Some lawmakers have said they worry that supporting Chebeague secession might mean they will have to approve other secession requests. Peaks Island, for example, has launched the process to seek secession from Portland.

However, Barstow said, "Chebeague is a very rare exception."

Rep. Charles Harlow, D-Portland, said he generally opposes secession, but said that "I have no problem with this one." He said listening to Chebeague islanders convinced him that "they know what they're doing."

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