Working Waterfront Story
Sunday, July 31, 2005

"The island's survival is at stake"; Chebeague ponders seceding from Cumberland

Chebeague Island resident Beverly Johnson first began thinking about secession over a year ago when the Cumberland Town Council voted for a ballot question that could have led to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on nearby Hope Island.

Within a week, Chebeague residents organized a Casco Bay-wide effort, and successfully convinced the council to cancel the vote. But the fact that Cumberland officials would vote to put an LNG terminal on a town wide ballot left many islanders in shock. "I thought, wow, do we always have to be on guard?" said Johnson, who owns and runs Chebeague Island Plumbing. "Ready at a moment's notice for something they may do, not considering our feelings and not understanding us?"

On June 26, a committee examining Chebeague Island secession will make its case at the island community center. A preliminary budget will be presented, along with a petition seeking a hearing with the Town of Cumberland.

At least 50 percent of the approximately 330 registered island voters need to sign the petition, the first step in a secession process outlined in state law.

"I would say that the island's survival is at stake," said Johnson, who is one of five residents who will be named on the petition as representatives of the seceding territory. The other representatives are Mark Dyer, Mabel Doughty, Jeff Putnam and David Stevens, according to Herb Maine, president of the Chebeague Island Community Association, a nonprofit group just formed this spring to ensure the survival and viability of the island's year-round community.

The petition will define the territory of the proposed Town of Chebeague Island to include all Cumberland islands outside of Basket Island, according to Maine. That includes the following islands: Bates, Bangs, Hope, Ministerial, Sand, Stave, Stockman, West Brown Cow and part of Little Chebeague.

Although Chebeague Island residents often talk of leaving Cumberland, this effort has its roots in a series of events over the past five years that have made many islanders feel that the only way they can sustain the year-round community is to govern themselves. In 2002, Cumberland did a revaluation, which led to such a dramatic increase in property values that taxes for many islanders doubled and tripled. And town officials say another revaluation is likely next year. Then in May, 2004, the LNG issue surfaced.

In January of this year, the MSAD 51 School Board proposed eliminating the fourth-and fifth-grades from the island school. The proposal was dropped after a petition with over 100 names was submitted asking to keep the two grades, and nearly 80 islanders appeared at a budget hearing to oppose the move. But for many islanders, cuts to the school pushed them to consider secession.

As all islanders know, the school is the heart of the community. "The year-round island community is dependent on the school," said Maine, who works as the information technology specialist at Sevee & Maher Engineers, Inc. "We don't have any other way of assuring the future of the school other than this process."

As the school issue was debated, seven committees began looking at issues to help sustain the year-round community. The Secession Committee made a presentation on May 15. Of those attending, 64 registered voters were favor of secession, 6 against and 1 undecided, so the decision was made to explore this option.

If the petition passes, a hearing would be called with the Town of Cumberland, according to the process outlined in state law. The petitioners must list the problems that led to the secession effort and present a written report showing secession's impact on both the new territory and the town. A referendum in the seceding territory is then held at least 30 days after the hearing. If the referendum passes, the Cumberland Town Council votes on the proposal. If the council approves it, the next step is the State Legislature. If town officials reject secession, they then have to work to resolve the problems with islanders. If that fails, an independent mediator steps in. If agreement is not reached in six months, the secession proposal can still go to the legislature.

Cumberland Town Manager Bill Shane said he would be sad to see Chebeague Island go. "I enjoy the people, I enjoy the culture and I have a lot of friends out there." There is sympathy on the mainland for islanders, because of concern over the potential loss of the fourth and fifth grades. Shane is disappointed that islanders did not ask town officials for help in advocating for the Chebeague school. "All of a sudden we jump from a problem to a real drastic solution." He said he couldn't speak for islanders, so "I don't know if it's frustration or past history, but that's a little bit disheartening for me."

Donna Damon, the Chebeague Island representative on the Town Council, said that island and mainland residents have worked together to solve many problems in the past, "but in three or four years the institutional memory is gone, and you're back where you started from." According to Johnson, "I think it's a constant re-education of the mainland about who we are and what we're about and what our needs are and the type of community we are."

Shane praised the secession group for taking a careful, deliberate approach to the issue. And with island taxes contributing $2.1 million annually to Cumberland, he said there's no question Chebeague has the financial resources to become independent. Proponents point to the island library, recreation center and eldercare home as examples island resourcefulness. "I think there's plenty of talented people to do the work that would come forward," replied Maine when asked about running a potential island government.

In the spring, the MSAD 51 board said it would again look at removing the two grades from the island. But in mid-June, board Chair Polly Frawley wrote in an e-mail that the board has no interest in re-visiting the issue "given the concern of the islanders raised this past year..." Frawley did write that "This plan assumes, of course, that enrollment of children in the island school does not drop off that a two-teacher school would not be necessary."

For Johnson, a pledge not to return this fall to the issue of the two grades still does not change her view on secession. "There are no guarantees," she said. "How do you guarantee that a future board, made up of people from the mainland," will support the school?

David Tyler co-publishes the Island Times, a nonprofit community newspaper based on Peaks Island.

-- July 2005

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