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Couple Seek Shelter From Taxing Problem

December 09, 2001|CLARKE CANFIELD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CUMBERLAND, Maine — Five miles off the Maine coast lies Hope Island, an idyllic 88-acre getaway with a 20-room mansion, helicopter pad, horse stables and stunning views of open ocean and distant lighthouses.

Its owners, a wealthy New York developer and his wife, now want to secede from the town of Cumberland--and its taxes--and form the "Town of Hope Island." John Cacoulidis says he is fed up with getting nothing in return for his taxes, which have gone up more than fivefold in the past eight years.

Other Maine islands--Long Island and Frye Island--have seceded from municipalities in recent years. But unlike those places, which have scores of property owners, Hope Island has but two residents: John and Phyllis Cacoulidis.

"This isn't a community. This is one big summer place owned by one rich family," said Cumberland's attorney, Kenneth Cole III, who gives the Cacoulidises a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding.

Hope Island may be privately owned, but John Cacoulidis said the issue is the same as on the other islands before they seceded: A lack of services.

"We're not against taxes, but if they tax me and give me zero services, that's my beef," he said from his office on New York's Long Island.

The Cacoulidises bought Hope Island for $1.3 million in 1993 and own it under the name Scorpio Island Corp. It is the type of place you'd expect to see on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

Situated five miles from Portland, the island has four beaches and pine, spruce and birch trees. It reaches an elevation of 90 feet for panoramic views of neighboring islands and Maine's rocky coast.

The island's main house, built in 1913, has nearly 10,500 square feet of living area with nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms and five fireplaces. There is also a helicopter pad and boat dock.

In recent years, the Cacoulidises have gone on a building spree. They have built a separate 3,300-square-foot guest house, a boathouse with an apartment, and roads looping the island. They've also erected horse stables, a chicken coop, a garage and even their own church.

All those new buildings, of course, have increased the property's value. Cacoulidis says the town's tax bill was about $7,000 when he bought the island. The bill this year was $39,215, and it will go up again next year.

Cacoulidis said he senses an attitude in the town of "Let's tax him. He's from New York. He has money."

"They tax me for everything--I have no [public] transportation, no telephone, no electricity, no rubbish removal, no schools, no churches. I built all of that myself," Cacoulidis said.

The Cacoulidises have run a power line to the island for electricity, and use cellular telephones. They hire somebody to remove trash, and built the island roads on their own.

The Cacoulidises set the secession process in motion in September when Phyllis Cacoulidis submitted a secession petition to town officials.

A public hearing was held in November and a special election of Hope Island's registered voters will be held this winter. In this case, the only voter is Phyllis Cacoulidis, and she wasn't registered until after she filed the secession petition.

Assuming she votes in favor of seceding, the matter will then go to the Maine Legislature, which approved the secession of Frye Island from Standish in 1997, and of Long Island from Portland in 1993.

The Hope Island case raises a number of questions.

For instance, can any property owner go it alone in trying to secede from a town or city? And if the Cacoulidises are successful, what would Hope Island's form of government be?

Cole said this case is unprecedented. Specific neighborhoods have threatened secession before, "but this is the first single parcel that has tried it," he said.

On the face of it, Hope Island does not appear to be a good secession candidate. Orlando Delogu, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said the Legislature looks at such things as whether a place can perform normal governmental functions for itself.

"I would think an island with one or two property owners/residents would not be a viable candidate," Delogu said.

If successful, John Cacoulidis said he would be responsible for providing services for the "town of Hope Island." He said he might contract with neighboring Long Island or another community for fire service.

In Cumberland, the secession petition has drawn laughs and sneers.

Cole calls it a "total and complete abuse of the legislative process." Delogu says the effort "trivializes" the state's secession law.

Cacoulidis disagrees. He and his wife, who live in Old Westbury, N.Y., come to the island every month and plan to move there full time eventually. They say they consider themselves Mainers first and foremost.

The bottom line, Cacoulidis said, is to receive something in return for his town taxes. He said he's willing to sit down and talk with town officials.

"We want what everybody else gets for their taxes," he said. "You should always get something for your money."

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