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Wednesday, December 18, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Will Popularity Spoil Port Townsend? -- The Politics Of Change In Paradise

PORT TOWNSEND - Be honest. Who hasn't come to this charming, Victorian port city on a bright summer's day and thought about staying, forever?

Such a day enticed David Sharp, a white-haired bartender at the Town Tavern, who spent a two-week vacation here in 1981 and didn't even go back home to Wisconsin to move his things.

Former Seattle City Councilman Michael Hildt came here in 1986 to escape big-city problems and burnout.

And Ken Eldridge, whose nose bears the scar of what looks to be at least one big Alaska barroom brawl, came here three years ago to escape the growth and affluence the oil pipeline brought to Juneau.

They ended up here with two things in common: Each fell immediately, head-over-heels in love with this city just around the corner from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And each saw it as the perfect place to slow down and regain some control of his life.

Beyond their love for this city of 7,200, there is little these people have in common. They arrived rich and poor. Some stayed expecting the place to never change. Others saw it as a land speculator's paradise. Hippies, who thought they'd discovered a funky nirvana, found it a cheap place to live at precisely the moment when wealthy outsiders were bidding up the values of the Victorian houses.

Those differences, aside from making for a fascinating population, have made for one doozy of a fight over how best to preserve a place virtually everyone agrees is sacred.

"This is a very small town," says Eldridge, who manages the Town Tavern. "And it's one of the most socially stratified places I've ever been. You've got your uptown crowd. You've got your millworkers who live on the edge of town. You've got your retirees and you've got your hippies. None of them talk to each other very much."

INVASION OF THE SEATTLEITES

At the center of the controversy over Port Townsend's future is a handful of relative newcomers who once had a say in running Seattle.

There is Hildt, author of Seattle's controversial Housing Preservation Ordinance, which was struck down as unconstitutional. After Hildt retired from the City Council, he moved here to do woodworking and build a house. Within a year he became one of the most powerful people in town, managing the department that oversees planning, building permits and long-range development.

Then there's John Clise, who ran the Pike Place Market before moving here in 1983. He's related to the developer who's tearing down Seattle's historic Music Hall. After five years on the Port Townsend City Council, Clise was elected mayor last month.

What they have in mind for Port Townsend isn't clear. Both deny having any grand vision for the city beyond preserving most of what's already there.

But their prominence, coupled with concern over what they will do here, leave many longtime residents convinced their city has been taken over by outsiders.

"I think people moved here because they could have a voice," says Patti Sullivan, an abrupt, chain-smoking antique-store owner from New York. "Now control of their city is in the hands of a very small minority of people from Seattle. That's the perception, anyway, and I've never understood why Seattle's best and brightest would move here."

Hildt and Clise came for precisely the same reason almost everyone else comes.

But instead of running a bed and breakfast, or a computer software company from home, or drinking beer at the Town Tavern, they've gotten involved in what they know best - government. And depending on whom you talk to, they've brought to Port Townsend one of two things: A professional government beyond anything this town has ever known, or deceit, bureaucratic red tape and a contempt for people considered less educated than they.

THE MIDNIGHT MORATORIUM

Those angered by the takeover tend to be longtime residents who own land here and were comfortable with the old government. One moment that stands out in their minds is a late-night City Council session in 1990. At the end of the meeting, after virtually everybody else had gone home, the council passed a moratorium on all waterfront development. The purpose was to prevent construction of a proposed condominium project.

"The way they did it . . . created a lot of mistrust," says Sullivan. "It wasn't on the agenda and they waited for everyone to leave. People realized that if it could happen to that piece of property, it could happen to any piece of property."

Longtime residents also worry about the new, full-time city attorney, Dennis McLerran, who will leave his job as head of Seattle's Department of Construction and Land Use and move here in February. They worry about the Seattle law firm - Harris, Orr & Wakayama, with specialties in real-estate law and taxes - that recently opened an office here. And they worry about government regulations, rising costs and their loss of influence.

Hildt and Clise concede they haven't always handled sensitive issues, like the construction moratorium, as well as they should. But they say this town, which was recently in an uproar over construction of a McDonald's, is destined to change and become more expensive.

In just a few years they've won over much of the town. Stephen Hayden, a longtime activist, sued the city and port in the 1970s to prevent construction of a Safeway store and regional shopping center on land that is now a park. Hayden wishes Port Townsend had remained the sleepy, boarded-up town he moved to in 1973. But it didn't. He blames good-old-boy developers and past city officials for nearly ruining the place and thinks Clise and Hildt will bring some sanity to development.

"I think Hildt has been a wonderful thing for Port Townsend," says Hayden, a chimney sweep and member of the Economic Development Council. "He's not a saint. But he's brought professionalism to an extremely tough job."

INFRASTRUCTURE IN TROUBLE

Part of the problem is that this town is uneasy with change, and there's been plenty of it in the past 20 years.

In the 1970s and '80s, a wave of tourists changed the face of historic downtown to the point where now it is nearly impossible for locals to buy underwear or shoes. Stores such as Penney's have been replaced by art galleries and ice-cream shops.

Tourism also brought land speculators. A decade ago, they began buying up buildings and land, a move that raised prices and prompted a substantial change in the type of people living here.

"The real impact has been in the area of real-estate prices," says Hayden. "Affordable housing is a thing of the past. You come here with a lot of money or you find someplace to live outside of town. To me that's the saddest thing that's happened."

Through the seemingly prosperous '80s, a lot of money passed through Port Townsend - but not much of it went into such things as sewers, water lines and streets. Estimates are that Port Townsend's 7,200 residents will have to contribute an additional $40 million to $60 million to improve schools and the hospital and provide the sewage treatment and water filtration the federal government is expected to demand.

To afford all that, Port Townsend must grow. But how? Where?

Instead of debating such issues in a recent city election, discussions centered on allegations that Clise's opponent in the mayoral race, Police Chief Bob Hinton, misused his office by mounting a drug investigation against Clise and another council member. No drug charges resulted.

In this town Clise still calls "totally unspoiled," the newcomers must now heal wounds and gently move Port Townsend in a direction that a majority of residents find acceptable.

"But they're going to have to be careful," says Eldridge. "I used to be a developer in Juneau. It was a wonderful little town, remote and out of the way. It was a pain in the ass to live there and I loved it. Before I knew it, it was gone, and once it's gone you never get it back."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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