Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Chebeague secession petition to circulate

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

CUMBERLAND - Chebeague Island residents plan to start circulating a petition that could lead to the island's secession from Cumberland, the town it has been a part of for 184 years. The petition, which asks that a public hearing be held to discuss secession, also proposes that nine other small islands, including Hope and Stave islands and parts of Jewell and Little Chebeague islands, join Chebeague in leaving Cumberland.

A small group of islanders discussed their proposal with the Cumberland Town Council at a workshop Monday night. It's not clear yet how the council stands on secession.

Councilors said they would be saddened to see Chebeague split from the town. However, several said they were undecided about the issue.

Others said they would not stand in islanders' way but expressed concern about letting the other islands go and about approving capital improvements for Chebeague, such as buying the island a $230,000 fire truck this summer.

Councilor Jeffrey Porter likened it to a pending marital breakup. "I'm not buying my wife a minivan if she's going to divorce me," he said.

Islanders countered that they could repay the town for the fire truck, which would be the island's first new truck since 1972.

The Legislature has the final say on any secession proposal, but the council would play a role. If enough islanders sign the petition and vote for secession in an advisory referendum, the council will vote on the issue.

If the council didn't support secession, the town and the islanders would have to work with a mediator. If no agreement could be reached, the islanders could then appeal to the Legislature.

Residents of Chebeague, which has 350 year-round residents and about 1,700 summer visitors each year, have threatened to secede over the years. Talk of secession was very strong in 2002, when islanders were angered by their skyrocketing property taxes following a revaluation.

But Donna Damon, a Cumberland town councilor and lifelong island resident, recently said the current movement stands out.

"In my lifetime, it's the most serious," said Damon, who is 55. "It's the most serious since 1834."

Islanders were upset then about a new town hall being located too far inland, but a secession vote failed.

The talk of secession this time began in the spring, when the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school board proposed sending the island's children to mainland schools starting in fourth grade instead of sixth grade.

The directors of School Administrative District 51 dropped the plan after an outcry from island parents, who saw it as a first step to closing the tiny Chebeague Island school - and the end of Chebeague as a year-round community.

However, the school board said it plans to revisit the issue, perhaps in the fall. A group of islanders, galvanized by the school issue, continued to meet and found they had additional concerns, such as affordable housing and protecting fishing grounds, said Herb Maine, spokesman for the group.

He was one of about 20 people from Chebeague and Stave islands who showed up Monday to discuss the possibility of secession.

The petition is expected to begin circulating on June 26, Maine said.

He said that islanders "have no particular grievance with the town" but simply are concerned about "the survival of our year-round community."

Councilor Stephen Moriarty, who said he is undecided about the secession issue, pointed out that leaving Cumberland may not release Chebeague from SAD 51, which ignited the latest secession movement by proposing to reduce the size of the Chebeague Island School.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: tnacelewicz@pressherald.com