Thursday, October 13, 2005
MAINE VOICES: David R. Hill
Chebeague Island is seriously contemplating seceding from the town of Cumberland and people want to know why. The issues are more complex than they might appear and, oddly enough, it's not all about money. It is highly unlikely that secession will immediately lower property taxes on Chebeague, if ever.
The defining characteristic of an island creates the need for independence - physical isolation. It isn't that easy or efficient to participate in mainland government when a body of water intervenes and one depends on the ferry schedule to do what others take for granted.
It isn't for lack of trying. In their early days as a town (formed in 1821), Cumberland and Chebeague were even more distant, since there were no direct transportation links other than private sailing vessels. Back then, Chebeague was functionally an independent community, though its residents occasionally locked horns with the mainland.
It has only been since the 1956 bulding of the bridge from the mainland to Cousins Island and regular ferry service began between Cousins and Chebeague that students began traveling to the mainland for schooling and more two-way participation in government developed.
Also, the system became more formalized with the creation of Maine School Administrative District 51 (1966) and adoption of the council/manager form of government (1972). Chebeague initially opposed both of these actions.
This form of long-distance representative government has failed. Chebeague and Cumberland may share a charter, but they do not share a community.
Despite repeated attempts by Cumberland and Chebeague to work together, understand each other's needs and function as a unit, it just hasn't worked. The 3 miles of Casco Bay separating the two sections of town is just too great a gulf to span.
While Cumberland's priorities tend to focus on controlling growth within the rapidly growing Portland suburb, Chebeague's priorities deal with the basic survival of a traditional rural island community.
NOT ABOUT TAXES
More than 80 percent of the registered voters of Chebeague signed a petition seeking a meeting with the Town Council to discuss secession. Soon, both communities will vote on the issue.
Practically every petition signer will say that secession is not about taxes. So, what is it about? Three things: fear, survival and independence.
Fear that our school will close. Fear that young people won't be able to find a place to live on Chebeague. Fear that older people can't afford to stay in their homes. Fear that the fishing community will be forced off the island. Fear that the islands near Chebeague will fall prey to destructive development. Fear that a vibrant working waterfront community will become another Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.
Those concerns all point to a very strong fear that the community may not survive in its present form. Maine had more than 300 island communities (each with its own school) in 1900. Today, that number has dwindled to 14.
RIGHT TO SURVIVE?
Does a community have a right to demand that it survive? Maybe not. But does it have an obligation to do everything within its power to ensure its survival? The American way would answer, "Most assuredly, yes."
And that leads to independence. When municipal and educational circumstances force residents to wonder if there is any future for the island, it becomes clear that we must take matters into our own hands. Maybe we'll fail, and Chebeague will become the summer resort island of the 2020s. But if we don't try, failure is virtually assured.
What is much more likely is that with self-government will come self-preservation. We'll keep the elementary school open to teach just one pupil, if it comes to that. We'll provide affordable housing. We'll support our fishing community and serve as responsible stewards to the small islands near us. We'll use our tax dollars to ensure our futures.
The time has come for Chebeague Island, with the encouragement and support of the town of Cumberland and the state of Maine, to follow the lead of Thomas Jefferson and "assume the blessings and security of self government."
- Special to the Press Herald