Activist Takes On Renton, Boeing

RENTON - Chris Clifford has heard the insults before.

His detractors won't speak on the record when they call him rude, obnoxious, politically ambitious and self-important. One detractor said Clifford likes to dress up and play lawyer.

Officials from Boeing and the city of Renton are his opponents in a legal fight to stop Boeing's construction of an office building at Longacres.

And some people believe Clifford is one reason why Boeing officials have threatened to build their planes outside the Puget Sound area.

So who exactly is this 31-year-old who is almost single-handedly thwarting the state's most powerful company and its high-paid Seattle lawyers?

Clifford, bar owner, one-time law student and loser in two Renton City Council races, is a loud and feisty activist. He opposed Boeing's plans to build a $70 million customer-service training center at Longacres on the contention that the project violates the state's Shoreline Management Act. The act applies in the case because the site contains wetlands and Springbrook Creek.

Though he could have joined a local environmental group also opposing the project in court, Clifford prefers to fight his battles alone. Acting as his own attorney, he sued state agencies, Renton and Boeing. Claiming that Renton issued Boeing building permits in violation of the Shoreline Management Act, he lost one suit to stop construction at the site and had to pay Renton $3,225 in legal fees.

On his second try, he managed to win a restraining order that halted Boeing's project for two months between May and mid-July.

On Aug. 18, a trial in King County Superior Court will decide if Boeing's shoreline permit should be upheld or withdrawn. If Boeing loses, the most extreme penalty would force the company to tear down the building's steel frame and pay a large fine.

Or the company may have to reapply for its permits, possibly changing some of the plans, and face more delays on the project. Boeing has argued in court papers that finishing the customer-training center on time is critical to deliveries of its newest jetliner, the 777. The company had hoped to get the building done by the end of this year but now says it won't be done until spring of 1994.

Clifford believes his quixotic effort to force Boeing and Renton to obey environmental laws is the duty of an active citizen in a democracy.

"Consensus builders are lemmings," he said. "We're losing anybody who's willing to fight tooth and nail for an issue. You have to be willing to fight."

He is a moderate Republican who is active in the party but who has lost two bids for the Renton City Council and decided not to run for the King County Council this year, due to his commitment to the legal fight against Boeing and his doubt that he can raise enough money for the race.

He is a small-business owner - with his brother - of a Seattle sports bar named Jerseys, where his job is to mainly tend bar and do renovations. He is also an environmental activist who has opposed mosquito spraying and road and shopping-center projects in Renton.

A lifetime National Rifle Association member and former semiprofessional football player, Clifford also loves wildlife and has a vast knowledge of birds, friends say. He keeps Chinese pheasants in his yard, is a licensed falconer and once had a bloodhound he used on volunteer missions for local police agencies.

Clifford attended law school for one year, but dropped out because his dyslexia makes studies difficult, he said. Despite the handicap, he has spent hundreds of hours doing legal research to oppose various projects.

Clifford admits emotional ties to Longacres. His father was a developer in the area who counted among his partners members of the Alhadeff family, which owned Longacres before selling it to Boeing in 1990. Clifford's sister, Marie, was the controller at Longacres until it closed.

He spent a lot of time at the track when he was young, lives near it now and enjoys the wildlife there: birds, beaver and the occasional bald eagle. But that isn't his prime motivation for taking on Boeing.

Rather, he believes Boeing has flouted environmental regulations. And Renton, he said, lost a lot of tax revenues when Longacres shut down, so the city had a stake in getting the track site redeveloped as quickly as possible.

"Renton intentionally violated the public trust and then allowed Boeing to violate the law," he said. "Boeing is preying upon these hard economic times to blackmail us into undermining the environmental-protection act.

"The city of Renton and Boeing were banking on ignorance - that you can't buck city hall. But we are all diminished if people are allowed to break the law."

Renton City Attorney Larry Warren said the city did not break the law. He said the chances that Boeing will be forced to stop building the training center equal the Seahawks' chances of reaching the Super Bowl. A Boeing spokesman would say only that the company is confident it will prevail in court.

Colin, Clifford's brother, laughs at suggestions that his brother's crusades are tied to political ambition.

"You want to run for office in South King County after taking on Boeing - especially if you want to go to traditional Republican sources of money?" he said.

Clifford loves politics and would still like to run for office but sees himself as unelectable: "I'm too outspoken and too blunt."

Indeed, Clifford seems to have an opinion on just about any subject; he will talk endlessly and candidly if you let him. And he vows to continue battling Boeing and Renton until the law is obeyed.

"If you hear me say I'm going to fight, I'm going to fight until I'm laying dead in the gutter," he said. "I won't give up."