July 1, 2013

Long Islanders still pleased with secession 20 years later

Since splitting from Portland, the island town has managed its own affairs, invested in the community and, as hoped, kept life the same.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LONG ISLAND - In many ways, little has changed here. This small island town has the same cast of characters it always has. Its small school still educates a handful of kids each year. There are still two stores, one gas pump and yards decorated with lobster buoys and traps.

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Lobster traps are stored last week on the wharf of Harbor d’Grace in the town of Long Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Portland.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Long Island resident Mark Greene leaves the Municipal Offices building, which the town acquired after it seceded from Portland.

Additional Photos Below

But now there's a small town hall, a new library and committees that meet to oversee everything from the cemetery to the supply of year-round housing for young working families. And in winter there are community suppers and school events that bring out most of the 205 year-round residents.

On Sunday, islanders celebrated the town of Long Island's 20th birthday with a community party. It was on July 1, 1993, that Long Island officially seceded from Portland to become Maine's 490th town. 

"We're the little town that could, and we have," said Michael Kilgore, a longtime islander who has served on the school board.

Long Island -- 4 miles long, a mile wide and a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland -- has been home to generations of the same families, many making a living on the water. The population more than quadruples in the summer.

Life is simple and happy on the island, according to residents, and has been especially so since Long Island became a town. Twenty-two years ago, on the other hand, islanders were embroiled in a tense standoff with Portland after a property revaluation doubled and, in some cases, tripled property taxes.

Fearing that working islanders would be priced out of their homes and the island would become an enclave for wealthy summer tourists, longtime resident Mark Greene started talking openly about secession. Islanders felt ignored by the city and were tired of constantly fighting for basic services, he said.

"We had no infrastructure, no public buildings, no nothing but taxes," said Greene, a retired teacher whose family has been on the island since the 1880s. "This idea of becoming a town, people had no concept it could be done. We'd been part of Portland forever."

When Greene mentioned secession to longtime resident Nancy Jordan, she told him he was crazy. She worried about the school, which Portland had threatened to close several times. But then, Jordan said, she realized the community would be better off if it could make its own decisions about the school and how to run the community.

Islanders rallied around the secession push, traveling to Augusta to petition the Legislature and finally, in November 1992, voting to leave Portland. The vote was 129-44.

There was no promise that taxes would go down, Greene said, but islanders were ready to take a leap of faith.

The divorce agreement between the city and town -- hammered out in binding arbitration sessions that Greene said were brutal -- required Long Island to pay Portland more than $1 million. In return, the town got $600,000 of property that had been owned by the city.

Despite the debt to Portland, Long Island was able to fix crumbling roads, acquire and open a town hall and community center, and buy a high-speed rescue boat. A handful of years later, a state-of-the-art library was added to the Long Island School. The town just bought its first school bus, although there are no street signs here because "it just seems too civilized," Greene said.

"Those are all things that wouldn't be possible if we weren't a town," he said.

Even with all the upgrades to the community, taxes haven't skyrocketed. The anticipated property tax rate for the 2014 fiscal year is $6.993 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The projected property tax rate in Portland is $19.41 per $1,000 of valuation.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Resident Mark Greene, a retired teacher, talks about the island secession movement that he helped initiate about 22 years ago.

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Michael Kilgore sits in the passenger seat of a car displaying the Long Island town flag. The car is owned by island resident Lorinda Vallas.


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