March 18, 2013

Ferry that joins Cousins, Chebeague islands also divides

Distrust between some Cousins residents and the operators of the daily ferry service has scuttled an attempt to create a transit district eligible for federal grants.

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

YARMOUTH — Lingering distrust between some residents of Cousins Island and the operators of the daily ferry service that serves Chebeague Island has scuttled an attempt to convert the boat company into a quasi-governmental agency.

click image to enlarge

The Chebeague Island ferry Islander approaches the pier on Cousins Island on a recent run.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The nonprofit Chebeague Transportation Co. decided this winter to become a transit district, in hopes of getting closer to obtaining federal grants to buy a new boat.

Residents of Cousins Island, however, have opposed a bill submitted by state Rep. Stephen Moriarty of Cumberland to pave the way for the company to obtain transit district status.

Moriarty said he withdrew the legislation.

"This was never designed to be an adversarial piece of legislation between two towns," Moriarty said. "There were concerns on the Yarmouth side, which frankly are longstanding."

Indeed, since the ferry began operating between the two islands informally in the late 1950s, there have been objections from residents on Cousins Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge.

Ever since the transportation company incorporated in 1971, the two communities have existed in alternating cycles of dispute and detente.

"Its unfortunate because we're neighbors," said Kathleen Fitzgerald, who lives on Cousins Road, near the wharf, and was upset by Moriarty's proposal. "Things seem to unravel from time to time."

At the heart of the disagreement is the influx of traffic, noise, trash and commotion brought to Cousins Island by hundreds of residents bound for Chebeague Island -- and by extension, the ferry -- during the summer. The island town of several hundred year-round residents is a summer haven for a couple of thousand people.

The ferry service from Cousins Island has counted more than 120,000 riders each year.

According to the ferry service, transit district status would have made it eligible for a federal grant program to raise as much as $2 million it needed to buy a new ferry to replace an aging backup boat.

Cousins Island residents, however, feared that the change could lead to further encroachment of the ferry service into their quiet enclave.

"There's just a lot of emotion and resentment toward things that have happened in the past," said Carol Sabasteanski, general manager of the ferry company. "Our motives were being questioned. But what can you say? If people aren't going to believe you, they're not going to believe you. It's unfortunate, but there's a long history of some really nasty stuff."

Moriarty's proposal also contained language about eminent domain. Had the quasi-governmental body been approved by the Legislature, it would have had power to take land on Chebeague Island, but not Cousins, according to the bill.

It was enough, however, to remind Cousins Island residents of a sour experience in 1999, when a parking area near the wharf was taken by the state.

Residents, led by a representative of the family whose land was taken 14 years ago, organized Cousins Island Neighbors United, published a website opposing the bill and organized neighbors to object at a town meeting in Yarmouth.

The group argued that it would be easy to allow further intrusion into the picturesque neighborhood with a change of law made in Augusta, with limited local notice to the people whose lives would be most affected.

With that proposal no longer on the table, residents of both islands are looking for some form of meaningful dialogue.

"It's a fight for survival for this island," said David Hill, who managed the ferry company from 1991 to 1998 and is now a resident and selectman on Chebeague Island. "I understand people don't like the boat coming in or cars driving past their house, but it's no different than any other place where cars pass by houses."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Chebeague Island-bound passengers file aboard the ferry Islander from the pier on Cousins Island. After an informal start, the Chebeague Transportation Co. formed in 1971.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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