COMMENTARY: The attitude that built America on an island in Maine

COMMENTARY: The attitude that built America on an island in Maine


Wallingford’s Mayor Dickinson has often stated that the primary function of local government is to provide a set of basic services to its residents. The key word here is basic: public education, road maintenance, health regulation, zoning, recreation, emergency services, utilities and so forth. At least in Wallingford, these services are provided very competently and, for the most part, very quietly. So much so that we residents take it for granted that we will always have these services provided to us.

Because we are in the dog days of August, things in town are pretty quiet, politically speaking. So I am taking you back to Cliff Island, Maine, to a place where these basic services can never be taken for granted. I thought you would find it interesting to see how this tiny community of 50 full-time residents living on a 180-acre island eight miles north of Portland is working to provide services that will keep the place sustainable, to provide for themselves the essential services that will attract people to live there year-round.

Cliff is politically part of the City of Portland, but, being eight miles from the city proper, most city services don’t reach out this far, and neither do many private or nonprofit services. There is one full-time public works employee that, essentially, collects the trash, maintains the dirt roads, and performs whatever other tasks are required. There is a volunteer fire department with a new (federally-mandated) ambulance with seven volunteers trained by the city. There is the last one-room schoolhouse in Maine, and the city provides the teacher and funds for supplies and maintenance, but it is only for grades K-5. After that, the children take a 6:10 a.m. ferry into Portland.

Other than an “island liaison” in Portland city government, and a City Councilor whose district includes the islands that are part of the city, the municipal government is pretty hands off. While that is a blessing in many ways (for instance, very few of the thirty or so cars on the island are registered, and the city can’t be bothered to chase the owners to do so), the flipside is that the residents are pretty much on their own to keep their little piece of paradise economically viable.

So five years ago, four full-time islanders formed an organization called Sustainable Cliff Island and began planning. They determined that the three absolutely essential elements that a working island needed are a post office, a store and a school. They fought successfully to keep the post office that was slated for closure. All the residents raise funds and many provide assistance to the school in order to prevent Portland from shutting it down due to low enrollment. And they purchased the site of an old store and fuel dock to reopen those facilities.

Here’s how Sustainable Cliff Island will provide other services: 1) Health: build a health clinic for a visiting nurse practitioner to provide part-time medical care, 2) Affordable housing: provide a home for the school teacher at a very reduced rent, 3) Energy: replace the fuel tanks so that gas and diesel can be sold to lobster fishermen and vacationing boaters, 4) Retail economy: reopen the old store, possibly as a co-op, and 5) Utilities: install microwave towers from the mainland and fiber optic cable to every home on the island.

All this will be financed through donations and grants. The organization has raised $300,000, but their plans will require a total of $750,000. They are receiving guidance from the Island Institute, an organization whose mission is to see that the fifteen Maine island communities that are inhabited year-round stay viable, attractive places for people to reside. They have received a grant from them for the engineering of the broadband project as well as one from the Maine Community Foundation to partially fund the construction of the health clinic.

I write about Cliff Island so enthusiastically because I am inspired by the energy, the optimism and the self-reliant spirit that the full-time residents display over and over, this time through the Sustainable Cliff Island organization. Island living is not exactly for everyone, and living on a small one like this one can get downright inconvenient at times. To assure its future as an independent and successful place to live, those that make their home on this tree-covered rock in Casco Bay are determined to build their own future. This is the attitude that built our nation, and I wanted you to know that it still resides in the islands of Maine.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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