Maine Islands Weigh Secession from Mainland

The Chebeague Island ferry

The Chebeague Island ferry is owned and operated by island residents and is Chebeague's primary link to the mainland. Island residents are now thinking of breaking off from the mainland government. Andrea de Leon, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea de Leon, NPR

Voice from the Island

Donna Damon is president of the Chebeague Historical Society and Chebeague's representative on the Cumberland Town Council. Her family history on the island goes back to 1756. Hear Damon discuss:

Mabel Doughty

Mabel Doughty, who describes herself as a "lobsterman," has lived on Chebeague Island for 60 years. Andrea de Leon, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea de Leon, NPR
A sign marks the five-year anniversary Maine's Long Island succession from the city of Portland.

A sign marks the fifth anniversary of Long Island's secession from Portland, Maine. Long Islanders say they've lowered their property taxes and improved their services in the decade since the split. Chebeaguers hope to replicate that success. Howard Berkes, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes, NPR

Residents of Maine's Chebeague Island have shared government with the 7,000 or so residents of the mainland town of Cumberland for some 200 years. But now, skyrocketing property values and taxes have islanders contemplating secession from the town that has long taxed, schooled and ruled them.

Many of Chebeague Island's 350 year-round residents feel they pay more money in taxes then they get back in services. But those pushing for self-government say money is not their primary concern.

Some worry that the mainland town government doesn't take their needs into account sufficiently. Others note cultural differences: Cumberland was once dominated by farmers. It's now a Portland suburb, a bedroom community for urban professionals. The island remains rural and many of its residents are lobstermen.

Still others worry about schools. Last year, the mainland-based school district proposed eliminating the fourth and fifth grades in Chebeague's school. Older students already ride the ferry to school. Many islanders worry that the move to transfer younger children to the mainland would lead to the shutdown of the island school.

Losing an island school is often the first step to losing an island's year-round population. "If that happens, we'll lose our community that everybody here just… cherishes," says island mechanic Dave Stevens. "It'll turn into a summer community. We're just not about to let that happen."

Though other islands have done it, secession won’t be easy. Both the town of Cumberland and the Maine legislature must approve before Chebeaguers get a chance at self-government.

By the Numbers: The Chebeague Island Story

  • Number of Maine islands with year-round populations in 1900: 300
  • Number of Maine islands with year-round populations in 2005: 15
  • Number of Maine islands with year-round schools in 2005: 14
  • Year-round population of Chebeague Island, Maine: 356
  • Estimated summer population of Chebeague Island, Maine: 1,700
  • Number of passengers traveling to Chebeague Island on Chebeague Transportation Company ferries in 2004: 151,773
  • Number of schoolhouses on Chebeague Island in the late 1800s: 4
  • Number of schoolchildren (K-5th grades) in Chebeague Island’s only remaining school in 2005: 23
  • Number of schoolchildren (6th-12th grades) from Chebeague Island commuting daily to mainland schools: 22
  • Total amount in property taxes Chebeague Islanders will pay in fiscal year 2006 to the mainland school district that educates island children: $1,551,000
  • Amount Chebeague Islanders will pay per island student to the mainland school district that educates island children (in fiscal year 2006): $34,466.67
  • Approximate annual amount neighboring Long Island pays to educate Long Island schoolchildren: $395,000
  • Approximate annual amount Long Island pays per pupil to educate its 31 schoolchildren: $12,700
  • Annual per pupil cost for salaries, supplies, equipment and textbooks for students at the Chebeague Island School: $10,652
  • Annual per pupil cost for salaries, supplies, equipment and textbooks for mainland elementary school students in the same school district as the Chebeague Island School: $6,066
  • Approximate annual savings due to proposed elimination of the 4th and 5th grades at the Chebeague Island School: $50,000
  • Proposed 2005-2006 budget for the mainland school district that includes the Chebeague Island School: $23,853,245
  • Number of Chebeague Islanders voting to explore secession from the town of Cumberland in May 2005 straw poll: 82
  • Number of Chebeague Islanders voting in the May 2005 straw poll: 89

Sources: Island Institute; U.S. Census Bureau; Chebeague Transportation Company; Chebeague Island School; Cumberland Town Manager; Town of Long Island; Maine School Administrative District #51; Beverly Johnson

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