Saturday, September 17, 2005

Chebeague, Cumberland may spar over small islands

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer


When Cumberland split from North Yarmouth to become its own town in 1821, neither town really wanted Chebeague Island and the small islands surrounding it, according to an island historian.

Today, in a modern twist on ancient history, Cumberland may not want to let Chebeague Island take along 16 neighboring islands or parts of islands if it breaks away.

Islands that were undesirable back then because of the paupers that lived there are now considered valuable real estate.

Chebeague residents pushing se- cession say the islands became part of the town together and should leave together because they are a community with common needs.

But at least one Town Council member has vowed to fight to keep those other islands as part of the town, saying they are a valuable tax base.

Councilor Jeffrey Porter said he would vote to let Chebeague secede if islanders decide they want to govern themselves, but not the other islands.

"They've gone too far by asking to take the islands with them," he said Friday. "I simply will not vote to let them take any of those islands."

Porter was the only councilor to speak against Cumberland's giving up the so-called outer islands at a public hearing on secession Thursday night. But other councilors previously have said losing the islands is a concern.

Of the 16 properties Chebeague wants to take, three are only easterly parts of islands that are partially in other communities: Little Chebeague, Jewell and Little Jewell.

Under the secession proposal, Cumberland would be left with only two islands, the ones closest to its shores: Sturdivant and Basket.

Those are the only two islands that Cumberland originally wanted when it first petitioned the Legislature in 1818 to let it secede from North Yarmouth, said Donna Damon, a Chebeague resident who heads the island's historical society.

Damon, who also is a Cumberland town councilor, said she recently came across an 1821 North Yarmouth selectmen's report that indicates Cumberland did not have an amicable split with North Yarmouth, which also encompassed Yarmouth.

Damon said she is still doing research, but it appears one dispute concerned how many paupers would be the responsibility of each town. To get the Legislature to approve the secession, she said, Cumberland accepted the islands and their poor "to offset the paupers of North Yarmouth."

The advantage turned out to be Cumberland's, because the islands became very prosperous by the mid-1800s, Damon said. "North Yarmouth kind of blew it," she said.

Today, the property-tax revenue the outer islands generate is an issue in the question of secession, which islanders and Cumberland residents will vote on in advisory referendum on Nov. 8. If more than 50 percent of islanders vote to secede, the council will vote on the issue. The ultimate decision is the Legislature's.

Only Chebeague and seven other islands pay taxes to the town. Some are exempt because they are state-owned public property and one, Stockman, is a public preserve owned by a local land trust.

Chebeague and Hope islands are the only two that have year-round residents who are registered to vote in Cumberland.

The property taxes generated this fiscal year from the small islands Chebeague wants to take with it total $72,684, according to the town. Porter said island property is becoming more valuable, so the tax revenue will increase over the years.

The reason Chebeague wants the islands is the taxes they generate, he said. "It has nothing to do with protecting their way of life."

Islanders deny that. They say they are considering self-governance to ensure the survival of their year-round community of about 350 people - and that the outer islands are a part of that community.

"Since the separation in 1821, there have been close family, economic and social ties between Chebeague and the outer islands," a new island report on secession says.

And today the outer islands remain precious to Chebeague, not only because Chebeague's fishermen work off their shores, the report says, but because they are places where islanders go to picnic, pick berries and see nesting birds.

Porter said that access will continue if the islands remain part of Cumberland. But islanders say they won't have a say over zoning and development of the islands if the islands stay part of the town.

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