Chebeaguers seek support for secession
By Craig Giammona
CUMBERLAND Representatives of Chebeague Island announced Monday that they will begin circulating a petition that could lead to the island's secession from Cumberland.
The petition, which must be signed by about 160 islanders (50 percent of the island's registered voters), will request that the Town Council hold a public hearing on secession, the first step in the process that could lead to the formation of the Town of Chebeague Island.
Islanders maintain that they are merely "exploring" the idea of secession and have not yet made a definitive decision to leave the town. However, if they are able to gather the necessary signatures, the process of Chebeague leaving Cumberland will be underway.
The petition, which was presented to the Town Council in draft form during a workshop on Monday, indicates that Chebeague wants several other small islands, primarily off Chebeague's southeastern shore, to leave Cumberland as well.
The petition includes Hope Island (owned by developer John Cacoulidis), Stockman Island, Stave Island, and Bangs, Sand, Bates and West Brown Cow islands in the territory that would leave Cumberland. Parts of Little Chebeague and Jewell island were also included.
Some councilors expressed concern about the additional territory being included Monday, and the issue could become an obstacle as negotiations move forward.
Herb Maine, president of the recently formed Chebeague Island Community Association, which is spearheading the island's examination of secession, said the other islands were included in the petition because a large segment of Chebeague's fishermen make their living in the waters around those islands. He also noted that islanders would be in a better position to take care of the islands in the future. These points was reiterated by Mike Robinson, a lobstermen and ninth-generation Chebeaguer.
"That's where my life is," Robinson said, estimating that he traps about 85 percent of his lobster catch off the southeast coast of Chebeague. "We'd be foolish not to take those."
It is unclear where most councilors stand on the inclusion of other islands, but Councilors Harland Storey and Jeff Porter were against the idea on Monday.
"I'll vote against it if it includes other islands," Porter said.
If a petition is submitted, a public hearing will be held, followed by an advisory referendum vote on the island. If 50 percent of Island voters supported secession, the matter would move to the council. If a majority of councilors back secession, the two sides would begin working out terms. This would include negotiating a fair price for the town-owned equipment and property on Chebeague, as well as the island's share of the town's debt. Once an agreement is reached, the state Legislature would have to approve secession.
If Monday's fact-finding workshop is any indication, the negotiations surrounding Chebeague's secession could be contentious. It is unclear how a majority of councilors feel about the island leaving Cumberland, but Porter said the town should not go ahead with any capital improvements on the island until it is clear whether Chebeague will leave the town.
"I'm not going to buy my wife a mini-van if she's going to divorce me," Porter said, referring specifically to the purchase of a new fire truck for Chebeague. The $230,000 expenditure was approved in the 2005-2006 budget, as were funds for other capital projects, including paving and a improvements to the wave break at Stone Wharf.
Chebeague's fire truck was purchased in the early 1970s and islanders on Monday said the town would be reimbursed for the purchase if the island secedes. They said paving was much different than a "health-and-safety issue" like a new fire truck. They also argued that until secession is finalized, Chebeague is still part of the town of Cumberland.
"We're still paying taxes to Cumberland," Maine said, emphasizing that the island is only exploring secession. "The process is exploratory in nature."
Chebeague has considered secession before, but the movement has gained momentum in recent months, particularly after School Administrative District 51 floated a plan to move fourth- and fifth-grade students from Chebeague to North Yarmouth Memorial School. The move would have saved the district about $43,000, although school officials argued that there were also educational considerations.
The plan, which was scrapped, upset island residents, who believe the health of the Island school is essential to the long-term viability of the island as year-round community. Islanders are also concerned about an impending property revaluation.
A related question is whether seceding from Cumberland would remove Chebeague from SAD 51. The issue was raised at Monday's workshop by Councilor Steve Moriarty, who said the island would likely have to pay its share of the school district's debt and negotiate with the school district in the same manner it will have to negotiate with the town.
Superintendent of Schools Robert Hasson said he has not heard from the Chebeague representatives and has not researched how the process would work.
Maine said it was unclear to him how the island would remove itself from SAD 51, but that the issue did not constitute a "new monkey wrench."
Craig Giammona can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.