Sunday, August 6, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Small-Town Washington -- In Friday Harbor, A Civil Debate About Island Life

(This is the fourth in Travel's weekly "Small-Town Washington" series.)

FRIDAY HARBOR, San Juan County - As the ferryboat winds its way slowly through reefs and islands of the San Juan archipelago, cares and tensions begin to fall away.

Too swiftly the journey ends at San Juan Island, the second largest and most populated (with 5,000 residents) of the four main islands of the group and home of the only incorporated town in San Juan County.

Here retirees, from moderately well-off to extremely so, mingle with artists, writers, merchants, would-be developers and apparent holdovers from the 1960s hippie generation.

An island joke has mere millionaires worrying about being displaced by billionaires.

On the mainland, this tossed salad of humanity might not speak to each other; on an island, it's pretty hard to avoid it.

In time, they discover that each cares about preserving the quality of life they now enjoy. It's just that they don't always agree on what constitutes overkill (i.e., how many more tourists, houses and businesses can the island accommodate, and how many acres can be cleared without destroying the reason for living there?).

"We sure don't need many more people, that's for sure," says a silver-haired man in yachting whites at the marina. He'd left the "Southern California rat race" after retiring six years ago. Now that he has his piece of Paradise, he'd just as soon lock the gate.

But at an upscale gift shop, a clerk says, "It's nice during the off-season, but I'm getting sort of anxious for the tourists to come back." A "civil" war

Friday Harbor's growth-policy debate is similar to the island's famous Pig War, a words-rather-than-bullets battle waged more than 130 years ago between the United States and Great Britain.

For those whose memories need jogging, the Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the U.S. undisputed claim to land south of the 49th parallel "to the channel separating the mainland from Vancouver Island."

Unfortunately, the treaty failed to make clear whether the "channel" was Haro Strait, which would make San Juan Island U.S. property, or Rosario Strait, which would make it British.

And when an American settler shot an Englishman's pig here in 1859, it almost triggered another shooting war between the two nations.

Cool heads prevailed. During the 13 years it took to settle the dispute and award the island to the U.S., American and British troops stationed there mingled cordially, often celebrating together on the Fourth of July and the Queen's birthday.

Such civilized behavior is typical of today's Friday Harbor.

A big banner on the side of King's Market proclaims, "Welcome to Friday Harbor. Please help us conserve water."

At the popular Whale Museum on First Street North, the emphasis is on educating the public to regard as unacceptable the slaughter and incarceration of the world's great sea mammals.

Bearded Jack Clay, who came up from Laguna Beach, Calif., four years ago, works as "the island's handyman" and makes driftwood canes for sale in local galleries. What has most impressed him about islanders, he says, is their dedication to recycling, "to exchanging their treasures for somebody else's treasures."

One small example is seeing islanders deposit used magazines in a bin outside The Mercantile, where they are free for the taking.

There always has been a lot of trust on the island. After all, bank robbers don't ply their trade where the getaway can depend on the arrival of the next ferryboat.

Signs of change

But there are signs of change. Trudy Dallas, who volunteers at one of the many art galleries, says that 20 years ago if the local lumber yard was closed "why, you'd just take what you needed and sign for it."

Not any more, she says sadly. In fact, "people have even taken to locking their cars downtown because, well, items have disappeared."

Each new gallery, gift shop and bed-and-breakfast seems to enrich the town. But some say that's the tricky thing about growth, especially on a land mass with very definite limits. One day you look around and realize that things aren't as good as they were and there's no turning back.

A 30-something woman book-seller says, with considerable emotion, "I just wish people would quit writing about us!"

That, of course, is impossible. Every spring writers and photographers for slick magazines and large newspapers "discover" Friday Harbor's quaint Spring Street shops, the island's Whale Watch Park, Roche Harbor and the remnants of the American and British "Pig War" Camps.

Two articulate and civilized men - Paul Montgomery, who works at Griffin Bay Book Store, and Jim Sackett, president of Pacific Custom Homes - have become the best-known protagonists in the island's modern-day version of the "Pig War," speaking out at growth-planning meetings and writing articles in the fortnightly Island Independent.

Both men moved to the island within the past six years, and both are products of the same generation. They dress much alike - leaning toward jeans and casual shirts - and say they respect the other's point of view.

The debate

Montgomery often holds forth on the environment in discussions at the Front Street Cafe, "where a lot of the democracy on this island happens."

Driving past mile after mile of clearcut forest on the Olympic Peninsula hurt him deeply, he says, because it demonstrates how easy it is to destroy in a few years what it took centuries to create.

Besides ruining the landscape, Montgomery says, present-day development often contributes to a two-tiered society - the very well-to-do and the very poor.

"As you displace the `ordinary people'," he adds, "you lose those who know how to live on the land. Sackett and his people want to impose a development grid on the island that will ruin the infrastructure, culturally, ecologically and biologically.

"They (those who can afford Sackett's upscale homes) will tolerate the low-income residents only so they don't have to import labor daily from the mainland."

To which Sackett responds, "I have absolutely no desire to turn this place into Disneyland. I also live here, and I want to continue to do so with my wife and children.

"The reason growth is a problem on the island isn't the six people a year who get off the ferry and stay, it's the people who are already here and don't treat the land with respect.

"Sixty percent of my business (contracting) is done off the island. If we don't build another house here, I can live with that."

Sackett pulls out plans and begins to talk about his dream - an 18,000-square-foot Sustainable Technology complex that he and J. Ward Phillips, a developer, are rushing to completion on Mullis Street, near Friday Harbor's downtown.The latest in construction- and resource-use will be on display to demonstrate that "the future is now."

Sackett says, his buildings will use the latest in water-conservation, alternative-power and renewable-content building materials. Vehicles serving the complex will be electrically powered. Furthermore, he says, every penny spent on the project thus far has been private money.

Whether he's allowed to do any developing or not, Sackett says, islanders should recognize that "essentially San Juan County is a Third World Country, selling itself off - through tourism and leisure - to make a living. That's not going to change.

"By using technology we can get by nicely with our present water supply - there's plenty of it on these islands if we learn how to conserve it - and we can live in harmony with nature and each other."

Montgomery isn't so sure. In a story in the Island Independent, he envisioned 6,000-square-foot Sackett-built homes, with solar panels and water-catching roofs, "glistening sustainably and independently self-satisfied on hillsides in the middle of 10-acre clearcuts. . . . (Sackett) uses environmental rhetoric to push the limits of growth. I'm not no-growth. I just want a way of living that's not so costly to the planet."

Dave Hawkins, an ex-marine who married a seventh-generation islander and recently bought the Radio Shack franchise here, thinks "there's a balance between developing and leaving things as they are, and I'm not sure if anyone knows when the ideal point is reached. I just know that I enjoy each season and talking with the people, those who live here and those who are visiting; and my wife thinks it's a great place to raise our three kids." ----------------------------------------------------------------- More information

Phone the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce at Friday Harbor,

(360) 378-5240 or the San Juan Islands Visitor Information Center, P.O. Box 65, Lopez Island, WA 98261; phone (360) 468-3663. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Don Duncan retired as a reporter for The Seattle Times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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