Monday, October 31, 2005

Chebeague's bid for secession no big deal on mainland

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

CUMBERLAND - William Shane has lived in Cumberland for 12 years, but says that he never set foot on Chebeague Island until he became town manager about three years ago. Now, as islanders prepare to vote next week on whether Chebeague should cut its 184-year-old ties to Cumberland, Shane says he regrets having waited so long to become acquainted with a place he considers "very special."

"Chebeague is very unique," Shane said at a recent public hearing on secession held on the island. "You don't understand what you've lost until you come out here."

Shane says he is "saddened" by the island's bid for separation and hopes islanders will remain part of the town and work with it to solve problems.

But mainland Cumberland residents - who along with islanders will vote Nov. 8 in a townwide advisory referendum on Chebeague secession - do not all share Shane's strong emotional tie to the island.

In recent interviews, some mainlanders said they have no objection to separation if that's what islanders want. Others were noncommittal. They said they haven't followed the issue, and don't know enough to decide.

Islanders are passionate about the secession issue and have turned out in large numbers at three public hearings to voice their feelings.

Their secession movement began last spring after the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district proposed downsizing the island elementary school. The proposal quickly died. However, islanders saw it as a first step toward closing the school, which they said would spell the demise of the island's year-round community of 350 residents.

Self-governance, with the island controlling its own school, is the only answer, island advocates of secession say.

By contrast, mainlanders in this town of about 7,000 residents have been largely silent on secession, even though it could raise their taxes.

Shane says the loss of more than $2 million in taxes from the island would be offset somewhat by other revenue gains. Still, he estimates that secession could add anywhere from 17 cents to 90 cents to the current tax rate of $18.80 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The numbers are just estimates because they depend on how much Cumberland will receive in state school funding next year, a number school districts won't know until late spring.

With the exception of town councilors, only two mainland residents spoke at a public hearing on secession at Town Hall Oct. 24, held specifically to allow mainland residents to be heard on the issue.


Only the vote of islanders on Election Day will be the determining factor in whether the secession process will move forward. However, the council has scheduled an advisory vote on the mainland because if islanders indicate they want to break away, the Town Council must vote on the issue.

Eventually, the Legislature determines whether the island can secede.

Bob Vail and Peter Bingham were the two mainland residents who spoke at the meeting. Both are members of the school board for Maine School Administrative District 51, which serves Cumberland and North Yarmouth.

Bingham said: "I hope the island stays."

Vail said he empathized with islanders' desire for self-direction and said that if they vote that way, "I'm willing to support that."

After the meeting, Vail said the fact that no other mainland residents turned up for the meeting was "a barometer of the community."

Vail grew up and lives in Cumberland Center and has strong ties to both the mainland and the island, where he has built houses as a contractor. While some of his Chebeague Island high school classmates still live on the island, he said many of the ones from town have moved away, replaced by a new, more mobile population.

"It really is just a bedroom community. I don't think a lot of the people really have a connection to the island," Vail said. "A lot of the sentiment (about secession) is: 'If you want to go, go.' They really are indifferent."

But interviews with 11 residents outside Town Hall one afternoon last week showed that some still feel a strong attachment to the island.


Michelle Josephson, 34, said she is undecided about how she'll vote Nov. 8. On the one hand, she said, "I grew up in Cumberland and the island has always been a part of it. . . . I'd hate to see them go."

However, she added, "I can certainly understand their reasons."

She said the tax impact - which on an average $300,000 home could range from an additional $51 to $270 in taxes per year - probably would not affect her vote. "I'm not really worried," she said. "It's not that high."

Jim Guidi, 43, has already made up his mind. "Let 'em go, baby," he said. "I'll vote 'yes.' "

Guidi, who has lived in town since 1993, said he has never visited Chebeague but doesn't believe Cumberland needs the island. "If they don't want to be here, that's fine," he said.

He said a potential tax increase doesn't faze him, because he has four children in school and 73 percent of the town's taxes go toward the schools. "Cumberland taxes are a bargain," Guidi said.

John Munroe, 68, also plans to vote for secession but for a different reason. "If people have the guts to strike out on their own, they should be supported," he said.

Munroe said his feelings are influenced by having friends who have a summer home on Stave Island. Stave is among 16 small neighboring islands or parts of islands that Chebeague wants to take with it if it secedes.

The islands also are part of Cumberland but only one, Hope Island, has any year-round residents registered to vote in town.

Munroe's friends, Freeport residents H. Gordon and Anna Crowley, have said they want Stave to go with Chebeague. Chebeague residents contend all the islands are a community with common needs.


But the neighboring islands are a sticking point for Robert Storey, 58, a mainland resident who has lived all his life in town and is undecided about how to vote. He said he might support secession if Chebeague islanders "don't drag the other islands along."

Some town councilors also object to Chebeague taking the other islands along and the tax revenue they generate.

However, Councilor Stephen Moriarty said the islands are geographically distant from the town and close to Chebeague. If secession occurs, he said, the town and Chebeague could work out an agreement regarding the more than $72,000 in taxes the neighboring islands pay the town each year.

Moriarty said he hasn't had any calls from mainlanders on the secession issue and is not sure why. He speculated that perhaps the tax impact estimates are too wide-ranging for residents. Or it could be, he said, that "people by and large see it as a remote issue that doesn't impact them directly."

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