Vashon Island's quiet, rural lifestyle has own pleasures, demands

Just a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle, there's a community where you can pick strawberries, rent goats to clear out the underbrush in your yard and spy horses, chickens and llamas from the road.

Vashon Island, with about 10,000 residents and 54 miles of tidal waterfront, is a rural Puget Sound enclave where the arts and a sense of community thrive.

"We really have the best of both worlds here," says Bill Chunn, a broker and co-owner of Vashon Island Realty with his wife, Lynne.

They moved to the island from Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood 28 years ago.

"We can enjoy all that rural living has to offer, but all the city advantages are just moments away," Chunn says.

It sounds idyllic, and it is, but the lifestyle's not for everyone.

"It's a great place to live, if you can either work here or stand the commute," says Joyce Olson, an accountant who lives and works on the island, and serves as treasurer of the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce.

Car ferries run regularly between Vashon and Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula, Point Defiance in Tacoma, and Fauntleroy in West Seattle. Passenger-only ferries run between the island and downtown Seattle on weekdays.

While some people refer to the entire area as Vashon, it is actually two distinct land masses, Vashon Island and Maury Island to the southeast. During the Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps workers built an isthmus that connects the two by a seamless road.

The area's infrastructure keeps its population and new-home construction from booming. The water supply is limited to what's found on the island; there are no pipes supplying water from the mainland. Restrictive zoning keeps most lots at least 2.5 acres.

The inventory of homes for sale has declined in recent years from close to 150 to less than 50 now, Chunn says. Despite the low supply, "Prices over here are typically lower than Seattle prices," he says.

The median home price on Vashon shot up 19.4 percent the past year, to $477,500, according to March sales figures compiled by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

"Lots of beauty for less money" is how Lisa Belden O'Meara describes it.

She and her family split their time between Vashon, where they bought a home in the late 1970s, and Mercer Island.

Another reason O'Meara finds Vashon attractive is that change happens slowly and deliberately.

"I think there's an island pride," O'Meara says.

Residents have a sense that the special nature of the community could be lost if it were to give in to development, she says.

Since its creation 16 years ago, the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust has provided permanent protection for approximately 770 acres on 23 parcels.

The combination of land preservation and population control keeps the demand for new businesses limited.

The main commercial area is at the intersection of Southwest Bank Road and Vashon Highway Southwest, which runs the 12-mile length of the island. There, you'll find a cluster of restaurants and gift shops, bookstores and hair salons, a grocery store and coffee shop, and other mainly small businesses.

Eugenie Mirfin, who runs the Vashon gift shop Kronos with her mother, Claudia Kimball, moved from Seattle about two years ago.

"I've never known so many people within a square mile," she says. "You can't go to the grocery store without having three conversations with three people."

This sense of community is strengthened by events like the annual Strawberry Festival and twice-yearly Vashon Island Art Studio Tour.

Vashon's beauty attracts a broad mix of people, from hippie artists to yuppie telecommuters to farmers.

"There is no norm on Vashon Island," Chunn says.

However, most islanders have a couple of things in common — a deep interest in the natural environment and an independent nature.

"It takes someone special to live here," Chunn says. "Most people aren't willing to cut the umbilical cord to the city."

Vashon Island, a 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle, has about 10,000 residents and 54 miles of tidal waterfront. (BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Vashon Island

Population: 10,520

Schools: The Vashon Island School District has approximately 1,600 students who are served in three facilities: Chautauqua Elementary School, McMurray Middle School and Vashon Island High School.

Nearby medical facilities:

• Highline Community Hospital, Burien

• St. Joseph Medical Center; Tacoma

• Tacoma General Hospital, Tacoma

• Mary Bridge Children's Hospital, Tacoma

Public facilities:

• The Blue Heron Art Center, 19704 Vashon Highway S.W., one of the oldest community art centers in the state. Founded in 1966, it serves as the hub for community cultural activity and the home base for Vashon Allied Arts. • Point Robinson Park, Point Robinson Lighthouse. Burton Acres-Jenson Point Park on Harborside Drive has 68 acres. It includes walking and horseback-riding trails, a boat launch, restrooms, a picnic area, beach access and swimming.

• Jensen Point has a boathouse and a concessionaire to rent human-powered water craft.

• Burton Adventure Recreation Center in Burton has a climbing gym, BMX trails, nine-hole disk golf course and skate park.

— Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf