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September 1, 2005

High taxes, frustration over services drive Peaks secession movement

by David A. Tyler

The Peaks Island secession movement is gaining momentum, with organizers collecting over 400 signatures by Aug. 12 on a petition to start the process. The Island Independence Committee (IIC) on Peaks wants to get 600 signatures before submitting the petition to Portland City Clerk's office in September.

The committee needs over 50 percent of Peaks Island's 1,064 registered voters in order to request a hearing with Portland, which is the first step in the secession process outlined by state law.

Although it is only four months old, the secession movement on Peaks Island could gain new converts once Portland property tax bills are mailed out in August. This is the first tax bill sent out since a citywide revaluation resulted in property values on Peaks Island increasing an average of 207 percent. As a result, property taxes have doubled or tripled for some island residents, and many say it will force them to sell their homes and move off the island.

After receiving a notice that his taxes for this year will be $5,200, an increase of $2,000 from last year, Peaks Island resident Russell Edwards said that the island's interests are not represented by the Portland City Council.

"This is government of the city, for the city, and by the city," he said. "There is an underlying frustration that Peaks Island cannot do what it wants." Edwards' house was for sale before the revaluation was adopted, but he is backing the secession effort, and is a member Peaks' independence committee, which is one of three secession efforts underway in Casco Bay. The other two are on Chebeague and Cliff islands.

On Peaks and Cliff a revaluation followed by exorbitant increases in property taxes triggered the latest secession movement -- a situation different from Chebeague, where a proposal to remove two grades from the island school galvanized islanders to examine self-governance.

Portland's last property revaluation was in 1991. It resulted in Cushing, Peaks, Great and Little Diamond and Long islands seeking independence from Portland. Only Long Island was successful; Peaks had its effort defeated by the state legislature in 1995.

The latest Peaks secession movement was sparked in April, after the Portland City Council voted 7 to 2 to put in place new property values. The revaluation was finished in 2004, but the City Council delayed adopting the new values for a year, to wait for the state legislature to enact tax reform. Over 100 islanders went to the City Council to ask for a further delay in imposing the new values, to no avail.

Islanders are still angry at the council's apparent indifference to their plight. "If the city is unwilling or unable to help us, it naturally falls to us to help ourselves," wrote Michael Richard, moderator of the independence committee, in the August issue of the Peaks-based Island Times. "We cannot stand idly by and allow the city to force our long-time island residents out of their homes, and to permanently change the character of our island -- not if there is something we can do about it," Richard wrote.

The Peaks independence committee formed in May. The group has met the first and third Thursday of the month throughout the summer with committees working on administration, education, finances, public services and land use for a possible town of Peaks Island. A core group of about 30 is working on the various committees.

Both Edwards and Richards were part of the last effort on Peaks to secede. But Edwards said the mood on the island is different this time. "There is an awful lot of encouragement from people on the island this time," he said.

Judy Piawlock, a committee member, said many people are waiting for facts and figures before making up their minds on secession. "I think we have a lot more people who are for starting the process and looking at it," she said.

Although the Peaks secession movement began in reaction to outrageous property taxes, Peaks Island has had disagreements with the city over islanders' desire to keep roads dirt, rather than paved, the location of the wastewater treatment plant and the cost of mainland parking for islanders, among other issues.

After the mid-1990s secession movement, Portland created a position of island administrator, dedicated to working to improve island services.

Richards said the creation of that position shows the city has tried to be sensitive to islanders' needs. "The problem remaining is that final decisions about Peaks Island are made in town by non-islanders ... In that process, the special needs of the island are overlooked, and the islanders suffer the consequences," Richards wrote in a column posted on a Web site created for the secession movement (www.selfdeterminationfor.us). "Decisions about Peaks Island should be made by Peaks Islanders, not by city councilors who don't face the problems islanders face every day."

Organizers are asking for a territory for the proposed town of Peaks Island that would include nearby islands such as House Island and Pumpkin Nob, but does not include any of Portland's other inhabited islands. Richards said that representatives were contacted on Cliff, Cushing and Great Diamond islands, and they were not interested in secession. There was interest from residents on Little Diamond "but we were not convinced we should have Little Diamond with us," Richards said. Even if residents of Cliff Island were interested, "to try to provide services down there would be problematic for us," he said.

A televised comment by a Peaks Island representative concerning Cliff Island's supposed lack of interest triggered a Cliff Island resident to organize a secession meeting. "When I started asking around, I found there was huge interest in it," said Leo Carter of Cliff.

An ad hoc committee of about 10 people has met weekly since July to examine secession. The group has received $2,000 from the Cliff Island Association to help in its research. The group's goal is to prepare a written report about the creation of a town of Cliff Island by November. Another option being explored is for Cliff to become the village of another island town, such as Long Island.

On Cliff, as on Peaks, the Portland revaluation got secession talk started. But Carter said the issue is more complicated than just taxes. "We have a totally different character from the city and we're geographically isolated from them," he said. "We have a better understanding of things on the island." Carter acknowledges there is a lot of work to do to study the issue, but noted "it's a very serious effort."

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