Island becomes its own town


CHEBEAGUE ISLAND – The bumper stickers – “Independence Day 07 01 07 Chebeague Island ME” – began showing up a couple of weeks ago. So did the T-shirts proclaiming “Town of Chebeague Island, est. July 1, 2007.”

While Americans are preparing for Fourth of July this week, residents here will celebrate their own independence day on Sunday when the island becomes the nation’s newest town.

After 186 years as part of the town of Cumberland, Chebeague Island is going it alone. Islanders say independence will help the island remain a viable, working-class community rather than become a seasonal playground for the wealthy.

“I’ve wanted this since way back when,” said Bob Dyer, who was born in a house on Chebeague 75 years ago and never moved away. “But I didn’t think it’d ever happen.”

The rocky-shored Chebeague Island, first settled in the 1700s, has 350 year-round residents. Its population swells to more than 2,000 in the summers.

The idea of seceding from Cumberland, a Portland suburb, had reared its head now and again over taxes or the differences between life on the island and life on the mainland. Two years ago, the issue was schools.

When the school district – which oversees both mainland and island schools – considered eliminating a teacher position at Chebeague Island School, it would have meant closing a couple of grades at the K-through-5 school.

Islanders were concerned, and not just because fourth- and fifth-graders would have had to go the mainland for school. If the school board saw fit to whittle away the school, the island community would be at risk of withering away.

The school, after all, is the lifeblood of the island. No school, no children. No children, no future.

“We love babies, because that means they’re going to grow up here,” said Deborah Bowman, the island’s librarian.

The proposal was withdrawn, but islanders were shaken nonetheless. They formed committees to determine their future course and lobbied the Legislature to allow for secession. On Election Day 2005, 86 percent of islanders voted in favor of breaking away. And in April of 2006, the governor signed a bill allowing it to happen.

Chebeague Island is one of only 15 year-round island communities left in Maine, down from more than 300 in the late 1800s.

When early settlers came to Chebeague, they farmed the land and worked the sea. Today many residents still earn a living as fishermen, while others make work on the island or commute to the mainland, a 20-minute ferry ride away.

But the key to maintaining an island community is the school, said Philip Conkling, president of the Island Institute, a Rockland-based organized devoted to Maine’s islands. Islands that lose their schools lose their vitality and ultimately their continuity as year-round communities, he said. Of Maine’s 15 island communities, 14 have schools.

Chebeague, he said, should be commended for taking control of its own destiny.

“Independence does not hurt islands,” Conkling said. “The evidence is clearly that it works where it’s been tried.”

This isn’t the first time a Maine island has gone out on its own. In 1993, Long Island – a neighbor to Chebeague – seceded from Portland. In 1998, Frye Island, located 15 miles inland in Sebago Lake, seceded from Standish.

Now it’s Chebeague’s turn.

Islanders seem to be excited about striking out on their own. They don’t feel the need to be a part of a town on the mainland; although the island is but a two-mile boat ride from shore, it seems a world away.

Out here, on a slab of land that’s barely 5 miles long and 3 miles wide and surrounded by water, life is simpler than on the mainland.

Everybody knows everybody – and their business. People wave as the cars pass by. There’s no need for traffic lights, or even road signs.

Every morning, people come to the no-frills Doughty’s Market, the one and only store, for coffee and conversation.

Roy Jackson, 75, hardly ever goes to the mainland.

“There’s nothing over there I need,” he said, a cup of joe in one hand, a doughnut in the other.

For months, islanders have been working toward this day.

They hired a town administrator and a school superintendent, and worked on a set of laws that will be voted on Sunday at their first town meeting. They’ve converted a former police garage into the town office, and contracted with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement.

People have to be hired – from the town clerk on down to the shellfish warden and animal control officer. Budgets have to be calculated, and residents have to vote on it all.

Then they have to make it all work. But islanders feel they’re up to the task.

Bob Dyer knows this island and the people as well as anybody. A sign hanging on his garage says, “If you don’t have 20 mins., don’t stop.”

“I think we’ll make it with flying colors,” he said.

There’ll be celebrations all week that sound like they’re from a more innocent age, with a pot luck supper, church choir concert and ice cream social. There’ll also be fireworks, a contra dance, a parade and a blessing-of-the-fleet ceremony.

Tom Calder, a lifelong islander, admits it’s a bit scary going independent.

“But it’s more scary staying the same,” he said. “We could see the writing on the wall that we wouldn’t stay a viable community for family and working people.”

On the Net: