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Maine island shows its independence

A community becomes a town

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND, Maine -- 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 the Fourth of July this week, residents on Chebeague Island will celebrate their own independence day today 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 instead of becoming 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 left. "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 summer .

The idea of seceding from Cumberland, a Portland suburb, had reared its head occasionally over taxes or 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 losing 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.

The proposal was withdrawn, but islanders were shaken . On Election Day 2005, 86 percent of islanders voted to break away. And in April 2006, the governor signed a bill to allow it.

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

Islanders seem to be excited about striking out on their own.

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

Roy Jackson, 75, rarely goes to the mainland.

"There's nothing over there I need," he said, a cup of coffee in one hand, a doughnut in the other.

Tom Calder, a lifelong islander, said it's scary going independent.

"But it's more scary staying the same," he said. "We could see the writing on the wall that we would not stay a viable community for family and working people."

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