Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Petition forces town forum on island secession

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

CUMBERLAND - The idea of Chebeague Island severing its 184-year-old ties with Cumberland began as just talk this spring. But that talk is now a step closer to reality, since the Town Council on Monday scheduled a public hearing and a townwide advisory vote on whether the island should secede from the town. "I accept this with some sorrow," said William Stiles, the council chairman, as an islander handed him a petition from islanders who want a public hearing on secession.

Residents of the largest non-bridged island in Casco Bay say they are considering self-government to ensure their long-term survival as a year-round community. They say the needs of the island and mainland Cumberland are growing too divergent.

The petition, which was signed by 273 islanders - more than 80 percent of the island's 336 registered voters - is required by state law to launch the secession process. Islanders needed signatures from only 169 voters - more than 50 percent of the registered voters - to require the council to schedule a public hearing.

Town Manager William Shane said Monday that more than the required number of signatures had been certified by the town clerk.

The council voted 6-0 to schedule the public hearing on island secession for 7 p.m. Sept. 15 at Town Hall. Councilor Jeffrey Porter was absent.

The council also voted to hold an advisory referendum on the issue Nov. 8 - Election Day.

An advisory referendum among residents of the secession territory - in this case, the island - is the next step in the process under state law. The law lets town officials hold a separate advisory referendum for residents not in that territory - the mainland. Councilors voted 6-0 on Monday to exercise that right.

Councilor Stephen Moriarty said, "This impacts mainland residents, not just islanders."

The mainland and island votes will be tallied separately, but the islanders' vote will take precedence under state law.

Councilor Donna Damon, an island resident, asked Shane: "Even if the mainland is overwhelmingly against it, it still goes forward?" Shane said the process would.

If more than 50 percent of islanders want secession and the Town Council approves the request, the matter will go to the Legislature. If the council opposes the proposal, the issue will go to mediation. If mediation doesn't work, the Legislature will be the final arbiter.

David Hill, a spokesman for the islanders, said after Monday's meeting that they don't fear a vote by mainland residents. "My feeling is that we can win the hearts and minds of the mainland people," he said.

For example, he said, islanders are still crunching numbers but believe that mainlanders' taxes wouldn't go up because the town's loss of island property valuation would bring it more state aid for schools.

Islanders may face a fight from the council because they want most of Cumberland's small islands - with the exception of Basket and Sturdivant islands - to secede with Chebeague. Councilor Harland Storey said Chebeague has no authority to take those islands, of which only one - Hope Island - has year-round residents.

Although the secession process has been launched, Shane said that island representatives retain the right to halt it at any time, "even two minutes before the Legislature acts."

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