Declining births, rising costs raise question of sustainability for Chebeague Islanders

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CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — In 1997, six babies were born to island residents – as many as in the past five years combined.

That’s a problematic, downward trend for any town, and one with ramifications a new Sustainability Coalition is expected to consider as it tries to find ways to ensure this island town’s long-term survival.

The coalition’s first meeting will be held at the Island Hall at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 2. Rob Snyder, president-elect of the Island Institute, will facilitate the event.

“Only one (Chebeague) baby has been born … in the last three years,” according to Eldon Mayer of Central Landing Road, who called himself “one of several community-minded individuals” who came up with the idea of the coalition last November.

“What this portends for our school is of concern to just about everybody, because we’ve developed our school over the last half a dozen years to the point where it’s generally considered excellent,” Mayer said last week. “If we stop feeding pre-schoolers into the school … enrollment will decline possibly pretty sharply.”

The school has kindergarten through fifth-grade classes, and then sends its students to Yarmouth and Cumberland schools.

Ever since Chebeague seceded from Cumberland in 2007, “we’ve been consistently around 23, 24, 25 students at the K-5 level,” Alton Hadley, the island’s school superintendent, said Monday.

Even though a student or two have moved into the system every year, the declining birth rate is a concern.

“I don’t know how you address that, other than the fact that you try to make your island community and school system as attractive as you possibly can,” Hadley said, “so that younger people move to the island.”

The coalition is also concerned about whether the island is “generating the people who are … going to make Chebeague run 30 or 40 years from now,” Mayer said. “We need a lot of people to be selectmen, and firemen, and School Committee people.”

In an email message to residents, coalition organizers noted that “most young couples have difficulty financing a home if it costs more than $200,000. … If interest rates return to more normal levels, the difficulty will worsen. There are many other barriers to settling here as you know – jobs, transportation, reliable high-speed computer and cell phone service, and the high cost of living, to name a few.

“We have also been hearing increasingly about how difficult an active social life has become for our small cohort of young adults.”

With lower birth rates, “the implications for our school, and down the road for our island, are concerning,” the coalition organizers said. “… Without fanfare very few of our high school and college grads have returned here to settle.  At the same time, not many young families have moved here. The result of these dual phenomena is the recent birth drought, just one in the last three years.

“As today’s pre-schoolers begin matriculating at our island school at the rate of about one a year, replacing today’s classes of three to four per grade, unless we see quite a few young families arrive on our shores, our school enrollment will topple,” the statement continued. “At a rate of one baby per year we are heading toward an average of one student per grade at our school, not counting children from new families.”

The coalition is hoped to be a forum for the development of ideas that could help make Chebeague a more attractive place to live, especially for younger families, according to Mayer.

Chebeague’s year-round population in 2010 was 341, a number that swells to an estimated 1,600 during the summer, according to the Island Institute.

Many of the island’s leaders, including elected officials and those heading volunteer groups, are involved in the coalition, according to Mayer, who has lived full-time on the island since 1998 after buying a seasonal residence in 1970.

His great-grandfather moved to Chebeague in the late 19th century to be pastor of the island church.

Whether family histories like his continue to flourish could rest, in part, on the work of the Sustainability Coalition. Mayer said ideas and suggestions for the coalition to consider can be sent to [email protected].

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.