How does an island with no year-round residents or registered voters determine its political future?
This question could come up as residents of Chebeague Island continue to explore seceding from the town of Cumberland. On June 26, about 125 people attended a meeting at the Chebeague Island Hall as a petition to ask for a hearing with the town of Cumberland -- the first step in the secession process -- was unveiled.
Members of the Chebeague Island Community Association (CICA), which is leading the movement to explore secession, also presented a a preliminary annual budget for a hypothetical Town of Chebeague, which showed revenues of $2.3 million and expenses of $2.3 million.
The petition also outlines a proposed territory for a Town of Chebeague, as required by state law. But the boundaries secession organizers set out may lead to some questions as the process continues. The proposed town would include Chebeague and all the Cumberland islands outside of Basket Island: Bates, Bangs, Broken Cove, Crow, Hope, Ministerial, Sand, Stave, Stockman, Upper Green and West Brown Cow. The proposed territory also includes parts of Jewell Island and Little Chebeague.
Many of these islands are privately owned; some are in state hands. But there is only one registered voter on these additional islands, and that is on Hope Island, owned by developer John Cacoulidis. And only registered Cumberland voters can vote in the referendum that must be held to decide secession.
Supporters of Chebeague self-governance said these boundaries make sense when you look at a chart. "There is no direct connection between the mainland and those island," said Herbert Maine, president of the CICA. The islands are all off Chebeague's southeastern side, which faces the ocean. The petition leaves Cumberland with two islands, Basket and Sturdivant, which are close to the Cumberland shore.
For Jeff Putnam, 27, one of the five islanders appointed to represent Chebeague in the secession exploration, Chebeague can take better care of these islands than Cumberland. "It has a lot to do with stewardship," he said. "Chebeague has always looked after what goes on those islands. They are in our back yard and we are able to watch over them."
It's also important that the islands be included as part of a possible Town of Chebeague because of the island's lobstering industry. Putnam, who has lobstered since he was 12, said there are 65 license holders on the island. "They are state waters, but the lobstermen have been fishing them for decades," Putnam said. "The lobstering community feels strongly about that." Traditionally, town lines demarcated fishing grounds in the bay, he said.
If these islands remain with Cumberland, Chebeague would have little input into their future. For example, Putnam said, the town last year looked into putting an LNG terminal on Hope Island. "We want to have that be our decision," he said.
But whether Chebeague can ask for territory with no registered voters on it could become a difficult negotiating point if the process continues and island voters actually do approve secession.
Bill Stiles, chair of the Cumberland Town Council, said he is against Chebeague seceding. But if got to that point, he would oppose Chebeague including other islands in its territory. "It boils down to, if there are no voting residents there, how can they petition to secede?" Stiles said. One other councilor stated in a public meeting that he would oppose Chebeague secession if it includes other islands.
In addition to uninhabited islands, there are private islands that pay Cumberland taxes but don't vote there. "How do you act for the non-residents?" said Councilor Stephen Moriarty. "The multi-island scenario does not fit neatly into the statutory framework."
According to Ken Cole, Cumberland Town Attorney, the definition of territory is part of the negotiating process. At the end of that process, it is up to the Legislature to make the final decision.
Questions about the state secession law itself are unlikely to be sent to a state court for interpretation. "There is a rationale that respects the separation of powers by which courts do not enter into so-called political questions,"Cole said. "I strongly suspect that no court would go near it."
But the question about uninhabited islands is an open one, and the Cumberland Town Council can make its own determination. "In a sense that the town can take the position, and legally stand on the position that Chebeague has no standing to ask these other islands to secede since nobody has made a decision to do so," Close said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's a sustainable position.
Putnam said there is a precedent for an island to include other uninhabited islands in its secession territory. When Long Island left Portland in 1993, it included in this territory Cow, Overset and Vail islands, along with part of Little Chebeague.
And Mike Starr, communications director for the Maine Municipal Association, see no reason why a proposed Town of Chebeague cannot include other islands. The state law does not define what constitutes a part of the community when it comes to secession. If the community agrees, Chebeague could become "one town, encompassing mostly islands," Starr said. As long as those islands that would become part of Chebeague are all part of Cumberland, "it seems to me that it would make sense."
In fact Cumberland Councilor Moriarty, while acknowledging the legal difficulties, states that from a policy point of view it makes sense to include the outer islands with a proposed Town of Chebeague. These islands "are even further away from Cumberland than Chebeague itself,' Moriarty said.
"If the town were called on to provide services to the outer islands, it would be difficult for Cumberland to do it from its location on the mainland," Moriarty said. "When it comes to services, "it makes more sense to me that they all be part of the same community rather that a large island on its own and several islands that part of the mainland," he said.