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Maine Islands Weigh Secession from Mainland

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

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.