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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Big City Voted Off the Island

A tiny community in Maine, feeling neglected by Portland, showed a decade ago that secession efforts can succeed. But the real work came later.


TOWN OF LONG ISLAND, MAINE — An ice-encrusted metal ladder on the ferry that links this tiny New England town to the mainland was the unlikely catalyst for a municipal revolution.

Day after dank day, the residents of Long Island climbed the frozen ladder that joined boat to land. They clung to rungs in snow, and they clung to rungs in rain. Morning and night. Sometimes, they slipped.

And though they complained, nothing was ever done.

Finally, in the early 1990s, islanders decided they'd had enough. Their list of grievances with Portland, the mainland city to which they were attached, included much more than the ladder, but its icy, slippery steps crystallized many of their feelings of neglect, disrespect and isolation.

Today, some of those same emotions are propelling the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood to consider breaking away from Los Angeles.

Ten years ago, on the nation's opposite coast, it was Long Island, Maine, that was pushing to become its own city.

The stakes were far different. Together, the Valley and Hollywood have roughly 1.4 million residents; Long Island boasts about 1,000 on a busy summer day, and year-round, its population is about 200.

Still, the complaints of Long Islanders a decade ago sound strikingly similar to those debated in Los Angeles' secession campaigns. Residents felt they paid too much in taxes for too little in public services.

They feared a diminishing quality of life. They thought they could govern themselves better than downtown bureaucrats did.

Geography also adds to the separatism in both cases. Substitute saltwater for mountain ranges, and the sense of being cut off from City Hall is powerful in both communities.

Across the country, secession campaigns have occasionally piqued the interest of unhappy communities, but most fall short. Neighborhoods in Atlanta, Seattle and Tucson tried to break away, but failed. Staten Island came close in 1993 when residents voted to leave New York City, a plan ultimately denied by the state.

When Key Biscayne formed an upscale, water-ringed community off the South Florida coast in 1991, it sparked an unsuccessful but attention-getting drive to dismantle Miami.

An international brouhaha erupted in 1998 when a Minnesota fishing community tried but failed to break from the United States and become part of Canada.

In Maine, tiny Frye Island split from the town of Standish in 1998 while the even-tinier Hope Island launched a one-family effort last year. Long Island, however, reigns as one of the nation's few secession successes.

The ferry ride between Portland and Long Island takes about 45 minutes across Casco Bay, comparable to a freeway trek from the Valley to downtown Los Angeles. Commuters include sunscreen-slathered tourists donning Maine-made L.L. Bean gear, as well as professionals in ties and heels. Similar to Southern California, workers making the daily trek from downtown Portland to the islands bemoan their exhaustion, boredom and lack of time.

The 4.5-mile boat ride stops at two islands en route to Long Island, a rustic town three miles long and one mile wide, a place where neighbors decorate lawns with wire lobster traps and squawking seagulls sunbathe on white Adirondack chairs. The coast alternates from sharp-edged rocks to fine white sand beaches.

The centuries-old town served as a fuel base for the North Atlantic fleet during World War II before year-round fishermen and summer vacationers claimed the island's Victorian beach cottages and two-story New England farmhouses. Most homes in the largely middle-class community have waterfront views of private wharves and bobbing lobster buoys, and most stay within families for centuries.

On Tuesdays, a popular day for grocery shopping, islanders crowd the ferry with banana boxes for packing food and wagons for lugging home goods.

During the summer, the ferry ride invigorates like a splash of saltwater on a hot afternoon. In the winter, when the bay becomes rough and icy, there are fewer boat runs. Air chills the bones while gray skies obscure the mainland.

It was under these conditions, more than a decade ago, that the frozen ladder confronted islanders exiting the ferry--and then, angering residents further, Portland jacked up property taxes.

It was then that talk of secession began. Mark Greene, a longtime island resident, was the first to mention it. He invited islanders to town meetings and to his beach cottage, served strong cups of coffee and advocated seceding from Portland.

"You're nuts," said Nancy Jordan, 57, who helps at the two-room schoolhouse.

But then Jordan considered the pros: The more than $700,000 that Portland reaped from Long Island taxes could be better spent improving the town's battered roads, dilapidated dock and substandard rescue boat.

It could be used to stop zealous developers from destroying forests of perfuming balsam firs, pines and maple trees and wild blueberries.

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