The vacation-home market has taken a pounding in the recession, but you wouldn’t know it at Seabrook. Conceived as the Pacific Northwest’s answer to New Urbanist exemplars Seaside and Rosemary Beach (with a dash of Serenbe thrown in for good measure) the nascent beach town broke ground in 2004 and got off to a fine start, selling 23 homes in 2006 and 34 in 2007. Sales dipped to 14 houses in 2008, but then rebounded to a healthy 30 in 2009. But perhaps the best indicator of this young community’s stamina is that it has suffered no foreclosures, no short sales, and only one rescission in the last 18 months.
There are plenty of factors driving interest in this picturesque spot near Puget Sound in Washington state, not the least of which is its location. “Until recently the Seattle market was underserved as far as beach towns go,” says developer Casey Roloff. “Most people were driving farther down to the Oregon coast. This is two hours closer for them.”
And it’s a pretty destination at that. Built on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the village center is lined with traditional shingle-clad and clapboard homes, interwoven with public parks, shops, and cafes. As you move outward and away from the hub, the density lightens and the landscape evolves. Paved sidewalks and concrete curbs give way to footpaths of chipped wood or crushed oyster shells (the materials for which are derived on site, or from the adjacent Willapa Bay), and concrete and metal bollards turn to wood. Homes on the periphery feel more cabin- and cottage-like, with broad porches, deep eaves, and natural cladding without paints or stains.
“The transition from center to edge is very intentional,” says Roloff, noting eventual plans for an organic farm on the village outskirts.
In many ways, Seabrook is a quin-tessential beach town: charming, walkable, laid-back, and somewhat transient. But the sequence in which it has taken shape has been counterintuitive in the development world, and that’s given it a jumpstart in an otherwise sluggish economy. Rather than building out the waterfront property first and then filling in the rest of the parcel inland, Roloff took the opposite tack and built his own 1,900-square-foot home (the very first house in the community) on the lot farthest from the shore.
What started out as a deal requirement proved to be strategically fortuitous. “The agreement was that we had to build and sell 100 homes on the highway side before we were allowed to build on the beach side, which was fine with us,” he says. As a result, what emerged first was not an exclusive playground for the wealthy, but rather a town that offers a variety of housing types and price points that doesn’t feel elitist.
What’s more, when Seabrook hit that 100-home threshold last July (giving Roloff license to start developing the ocean side of the property), he cut the allowable density in half to create a public space that runs parallel to the water.
“The industry has been going on this assumption that the more private and exclusive a property is, the more valuable it must be, but I think the opposite is true,” says Roloff. “This was a gamble on our part, and it’s working. Now people make day trips to come here, because there are beautiful spaces that are open to everyone.”
That includes a fair share of urbanites craving a weekend getaway in nature. Many of those day-trippers become renters, and some renters, in turn, have become homeowners. Right now about 10 percent of the houses at Seabrook are used as primary residences, but Roloff estimates that another 10 percent to 15 percent of owners are empty-nesters who intend to retire in Seabrook in a few years.
For now, nearly half of all homes are in the rental pool, and this is a reality that is helping—not hurting—home sales. “That’s what keeps driving record traffic through our sales office,” Roloff says. “Had we designed this as just a second-home community, it would be deader than a doornail right now. But with rentals, people can come and experience the place and stay in someone’s house for a week.” And, with luck, fall in love with the neighborhood.
Although most of the 140 homes built to date have been built by Seabrook Construction (the general contracting arm of Roloff’s venture), other builders are now coming into the mix, lending their expertise to everything from townhomes to large custom residences.
To mitigate risk and preserve property values, all homes are presold. “Our formula that’s helped us avoid a lot of failed contracts is 10 percent nonrefundable down before we start to build. That’s gospel here,” Roloff explains. “There was one deal where we allowed 5 percent up front, and that was the only rescission we had in 18 months.”
Seabrook also operates with an environmental and economic conscience—a commitment that has not been lost on buyers, renters, and local planning officials. Rooted in Washington state’s most depressed county, it has created employment opportunities for many area residents whose one-time fishing and logging jobs have dried up. Construction labor is recruited locally, and all trees felled for construction are locally milled and put back into the community as shingles, fencing, edging for flower beds, or pervious ground cover. “We made a commitment in the beginning that 80 percent of our workforce would come from this county, so people aren’t driving long distances to work,” says Roloff.
In addition, 1 percent of the sales price of every home goes into the Seabrook Foundation, an entity that has provided seed money for local business start-ups, as well as funding for an ambulance, school supplies, and local food banks.
“If someone from Seattle wants to come here and start a business, we can’t help them. But if there’s someone from Grays Harbor County who wants to open up a shop, we can loan them up to 3 percent so they can defer their start-up costs,” Roloff says.
Of the 300 acres in Seabrook’s possession, 100 acres are currently entitled for a village housing 468 units. Long term, Roloff hopes to build two more villages and then acquire another 1,000 acres, setting aside 70 percent of that land for conservation.
It’s a resort town, first and foremost, but Seabrook is also leveraging its position to evangelize the ideals of New Urbanism and environmental stewardship.
“I feel like we are doing our part in the Northwest by building a place where lots of people can come and get a little taste of the experience,” Roloff says, “so that maybe they will start to think outside the box when it comes to new development.”
Total acreage: 100
Date opened for sale: 2004
Products: Single-family homes, row homes, cottages, cabins, and townhouses
Price ranges: Low $200s to $3 million
Total number of units at build- out: 468 (first of three villages)
Sales to date: 150
Builder/Developer: Seabrook Land Co., Olympia, Wash.
General contractor: Seabrook Construction, Seabrook, Wash.
Urban planner: Laurence Qamar, Portland, Ore.
Landscape architect: Stephen Poulakos, Olympia