The audacity. How could anyone in the 21st century think he could create an upscale beach town from nothing but wilderness on the remote Washington coast?
Especially this 29-year-old kid, Casey Roloff, who barely made it out of high school with a 1.34 grade-point average; who got into Tacoma Community College partly because he wanted to play basketball; who needed a personal waiver from the University of Puget Sound president after being rejected for admission three times?
This guy wants to build a new town in the far north of Grays Harbor County, the poster county for old towns downtrodden by the decline of timber and fishing?
“It’s the end of the Earth,” said Roger Milliman, business development manager for the Grays Harbor Economic Development Council. “My first thought was, ‘Gee, I hope he makes it.’”
Today, seven years after Roloff, now 36, conceived of building a town from scratch here, a walk through Seabrook leaves you wondering two things:
• What’s more impressive: the creation or its creator?
• Can Roloff’s vision for town building save the world by changing how we live? See photo gallery
‘THIS IS IT’
Describing Seabrook with words seems inadequate.
Sure, the town straddles Highway 109 on a rolling bluff above nearly a mile of beach just south of the historic township of Pacific Beach. It has 90 homes today, mostly second homes or vacation cottages owners keep in a rental pool. Twenty more are under construction, 116 have sold and Roloff’s crews can’t finish them fast enough.
No two look identical. Larger homes, called “founders homes,” anchor corners. But all homes, in some ways, mimic the historic architecture of the best beach towns of the Washington and Oregon coasts. Eventually, Seabrook will have roughly 400 residences packed into 88 acres.
The first business, a seafood cafe called Tashtego, opened in February. Construction begins next month on a neighborhood market, then in September on an indoor pool and late next year on a boutique hotel.
But the feel of Seabrook – its comfortable, homey, nostalgic atmosphere – has made it a draw.
“We’d been working with a Realtor for six years looking to buy a little home or cabin on Puget Sound,” said Kristen Taylor, a part-time physical therapist and mother of three from Olympia. “Nothing was quite right. … Our Realtor suggested we check out Seabrook.
“We went out there on Mother’s Day weekend and said, ‘This is it. This is what we’re looking for.’ We originally wanted acreage away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But at Seabrook we could have a small lot and make friends and enjoy people from all over the country” and still decompress.
AN IMMERSIVE LANDSCAPE
Seabrook, as Roloff explains it, resonates with people because it has expanded on the tricks of town building, aka new urbanism, pioneered with the creation of Seaside, Fla., in 1979.
Roloff made a pilgrimage there before he started Seabrook. He also employed Laurence Qamar, a Portland architect who studied under the architects who founded Seaside, as Seabrook’s town planner. He also hired, as Seabrook’s director of town development, Stephen Poulakos, a landscape architect who helped create the new urbanist community of Rosemary Beach, Fla.
Building Seabrook works like this: Rather than wipe the 88 acres clean, the town gets placed into its natural setting. Most lots kept some fir, pine or alder. No one has a lawn, but the small yards incorporate Oregon grape, Maidenhair fern, salal and other native plants. The homes, fences and benches incorporate untreated cedar, which gives Seabrook the appearance that it has existed for years.
The town layout, just as Qamar drew it, includes arcing streets and alleys. Homes have covered front porches pushed up to the sidewalks to encourage conversations between homeowners and passers-by. As you get farther from the town center, the sidewalks, curbs and gutters disappear, in favor of paths made of ground oyster shells from Willapa Bay.
The open spaces remain public spaces: the grassy parks, the playground, the tadpole ponds, trails to the beach, the common courtyard fire pits. Around town, you’ll find a fleet of bicycles in various sizes. When you come across a bike, you can pick it up, ride it around and leave it wherever you please.
Perhaps most important, Roloff said, a new urbanist town like Seabrook operates on two key principles:
• You can walk anywhere in about five minutes – an emphasis on its pedestrian leanings.
• The most appealing land in Seabrook – like the beach and the best views of it – remains accessible to everyone.
“Anytime over the last 50 years,” Roloff said, during a walk along the bluff trail overlooking the ocean, “somebody could have come here, bought this and built 500 condos right to the edge. It would have been perfectly legal. But we think this space should belong to everybody.”
A FATEFUL TRIP
How Roloff ended up building his town here involves a measure of fate.
Just before finals week in 1993 at UPS, Roloff and his girlfriend, Laura Pfeifer, needed a break. He had grown up in Vancouver, Wash. She in Portland. Both their families vacationed often along Oregon’s coast. They decided to make their first day trip to Ocean Shores to unwind from studying. Unimpressed, they continued driving north. As they came around a corner on Highway 109 just past the Sand Piper Inn and two miles from Pacific Beach, they pulled off the road to admire a vista more reminiscent of the Oregon coast than anyplace they had seen in Washington.
Eight years later, Roloff had forgotten about that trip. They had gotten married while at UPS. He started a house-painting company that helped him and Laura pay their way through college by painting North Tacoma homes.
After college, they relaunched their painting company in a place they both wanted to live: on the Oregon Coast near Lincoln City.
Unable to find a home they liked, he built one and, based on the experience, swore he wouldn’t build another. But folks who saw his craftsmanship asked him to build homes for them, too. Reluctantly, he did. Eventually, he built a host of homes in a 100-cottage neighborhood called Bella Beach, south of Lincoln City. Not a full-fledged town, Bella Beach nonetheless inspired Roloff’s notion of Seabrook and made him enough money to pursue it.
“It gave me the confidence that we weren’t as novice as we thought and we could build a whole town,” he said.
‘A REAL BOOST’
So he hired real estate agents to scour the Washington and Oregon coasts. He needed 100 acres minimum, preferably more. One day in 2001, on his way to look at property, he rounded a corner on Highway 109 and was surprised.
The property his agent found? The same stretch of beach he and Laura happened upon eight years earlier.
“Casey likes to say, if he blindfolded you and dropped you in Seabrook, you would think you’re on the Oregon coast,” said Walker John, a childhood friend and chief financial officer for Seabrook Land Co. Eventually, Roloff quietly bought seven separate adjacent parcels – only one listed for sale – totaling roughly 300 acres for $3 million.
“All I heard for the next three to four years was that we were pioneering. And we were,” Roloff said. “There’s nothing like it, of course. This particular area and the people around it would have never anticipated the scope of what we proposed.”
Yet most of Grays Harbor County embraced him. More than 380 residents of Pacific Beach signed an endorsement petition.
“I think a lot of the local community had this self-detest kind of attitude, saying ‘We’re depressed here. Nothing’s ever going to happen,’” said Miles Batchelder, former wine director at the nearby Ocean Crest Resort. “Then Casey showed up. … Seabrook’s success has given people a real boost.”
So much so that Batchelder left Ocean Crest to own and operate the Tashtego Café in Seabrook.
Not everyone liked the idea of Seabrook, however. To settle an appeal of his development plan, Roloff had to agree not to build on the beach side of the highway until he had first sold and built 100 homes on the opposite side.
Earlier this month, Roloff hosted a party to release for sale the first 14 lots closest to the ocean.
“Talk about a rocket ship,” assessed Milliman of the county Economic Development Council. “Quite frankly, we’re quite pleased with the staying power he’s had. It was a huge gamble.”
SUPPORT AND INSPIRATION
Roloff likes to pass credit around. He’ll talk about how he learned about entrepreneurial adventure from his father, Larry, and his mother, Robyn. The family fortunes rose and fell and rose and fell depending on how well their video rental store or interior decorating or frozen yogurt or home remodeling businesses fared.
“We encouraged the kids to think they were valuable people from the time they were able to understand,” said Robyn Roloff, who sells homes at Seabrook. “Work was a joy. We talked about our businesses with the kids. … Money wasn’t the first and most important thing, because sometimes we had it, and sometimes we didn’t. You weren’t programmed to fail, but you weren’t afraid to fail.”
Roloff also talked about Jason Hoseney, a friend and former Oregon State University football player, who taught him to set goals, write them down and review them daily.
He praises Thomas Schillar, the now-retired UPS business leadership professor, for drilling into him the concept of “adding value” for the customer in every business venture.
Roloff took every Schillar class and hung on every pronouncement because Schillar had become a self-made millionaire in land development before he became a professor. He had experience.
“Casey was the one out of every 30 kids I had who was interested in entrepreneurship right away,” Schillar said. “If Casey wanted to be a structural engineer or nuclear physicist, if he would have been allowed to get his hands on a product and match theory and practice, he could do it.”
Ultimately, Roloff credits his rock, wife Laura, whom he met on a blind date when he was a high school senior and she a straight-A sophomore volleyball player.
Roloff says he liked Laura so much, he knew he had to improve his grades and get into college for fear that her parents wouldn’t think him worthy of her.
“It’s not an easy job to be married to someone who has these big goals,” Robyn Roloff said. “Laura’s more than understanding. She’s gifted. She has insight and vision equal to his but is a silent partner.”
Laura, meanwhile, acknowledges simply, “Casey is quite the dreamer. … Maybe I got him on track.”
She remembers the day, shortly after the houses started going up at Bella Beach, when Casey “nonchalantly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to build a town?’ What am I to do but laugh? I used to think he was nuts when he’d say things like that, then he’d actually do it. … He’s able to dream and make it a reality.”
ESCAPING ‘A SUBURBAN WORLD’
The next dream? Roloff plans to replicate his coastal vacation-home town with a similar primary-home town in a metropolitan area, preferably in the Puget Sound region. He wants to prove to consumers – and other developers – that living in walkable, sustainable villages works better than sprawling developments of look-alike tract homes that require driving for everything.
He’s already started looking for a minimum of 80 to 100 acres and wishes for 1,000. If he had that, he’d build 10 100-acre walkable villages.
America has “built a suburban world, and it isn’t attractive. It isn’t timeless. It’s not a place people will want to be in 20 or 30 years,” Roloff said.
“The only good news about this housing slowdown is it’s making everyone pause and look at what we were building and say, ‘We can do better than this.’”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785
The town of Seabrook
Description: Ninety homes and cottages and a cafe completed in an eventual 400-unit village with parks, playgrounds and an indoor pool on 88 acres with nearly a mile of oceanfront. The town center will include a commercial district with a market, a boutique hotel and shops.
Development principles: New urbanism concepts: Everything within a five-minute walk, and the best land remains public space.
Current price range: $399,000 for two bedrooms, two baths and 770 square feet, to $1.3 million for four-plus bedrooms, 31/2 baths and 2,734 square feet
To rent: $99 to $465 per night, depending on the season. Homes sleep four to 14
Location: Grays Harbor County, 16 miles north of Ocean Shores, one mile south of Pacific Beach
Notable: 1 percent of gross sales goes to the Seabrook Foundation, which funds civic, social and educational needs of the surrounding coastal communities of Grays Harbor County.