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 mbyrne@pressherald.com
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."

Fitzgerald, who is no more welcoming of the extra traffic than she is of the years of discord, said she has made plans to meet privately with Chebeague residents to try to hash out their differences -- the first step, she said, to creating some kind of cooperation between communities separated by less than a mile of water.

"There has to be a give-and-take here," said Fitzgerald. "Many of us on Cousins Island feel like it's been all take. We don't get anything."

Reaching a warmer state of affairs will not be simple. The disagreements go back generations and have changed little at their core.

Before the Cousins Island causeway's construction in 1956, Chebeague Island residents accessed the mainland only by private boat or aboard the Casco Bay Lines ferry, which provides less frequent, longer trips of more than an hour to Portland.

The ferry's origins are somewhat informal, said Hill. At first, lobstermen shuttled Chebeague residents back and forth, then a water taxi service started in 1959, and then the Chebeague Transportation Co. formed in 1971.

To calm the objections over the years, the service has been limited by a series of court orders, appeals and consent agreements, each carefully crafted to prevent further encroachment of the ferry's influence on island residents' lives.

The current agreement, signed in 2008 by the town of Yarmouth and the town of Chebeague Island, stipulates such details as the number of ferry trips allowed per week and per day, the hours of the boat's operation and the size of any ferry boat to be purchased in the future.

Additional orders have been issued over the years governing the operation of a barge service to transport cars, freight and trash.

No battle has generated more ill will than the 1999 taking of 1.4 acres near the ferry wharf that for decades were owned by the Blanchard family.

Conflicts over use of the land go back at least 50 years, when it was first used for parking. Yarmouth sued Blanchard in 1976, and the first court-ordered consent agreement to limit parking was made.

Disagreements continued, and in 1994 the Blanchard family threatened not to renew the lease for the parking area. Before that could happen, the state of Maine took the lot by eminent domain.

The Blanchards appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the seizure in a 4-3 decision.

The Blanchard family remains involved in the dispute.

"I felt a genuine interest on a part of all the parties that there be productive conversations," said James Cohen, who represented the Blanchards during the recent tussle over the transit district issue. "There were acknowledgements of lots of history, and fear of that history, but also a desire to find opportunities to improve."

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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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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