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A Bit of U.S. Clinging to Canada, Point Roberts Waits for Boom

Associated Press

This tiny patch of the United States clinging to Canada’s west coast was once dismissed as an “inconvenient appendage.” Today it’s touted as a world-class resort waiting to blossom.

That’s the dream anyway here on the 4.9 square miles on the U.S. end of a peninsula shared by the two countries.

Point Roberts, settled by homesteaders and salmon fishermen, many of them immigrants from Iceland, evolved into a lazy retirement community that comes alive during the summer vacation months.

Talk of a big resort development touched off a land boom five years ago. But it all depends on water, the drinking kind.

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Dangles Below Line

The point’s unique geography has been the source of both its promise and its problems since the 49th Parallel was chosen in 1846 as the northern boundary between the United States and Canada.

Point Roberts dangles south of that boundary, making it part of the United States. But it is bounded by water on three sides and reachable by land only by driving 23 miles from Blaine, Wash., through Canada and across two border crossings.

Lord Claredon, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, wrote in 1856 that Point Roberts “cannot be of the slightest value to the United States,” dismissing it as an “inconvenient appendage” that should probably be British.

But the United States knew it wanted Point Roberts, even if it wasn’t quite sure why. The government designated it first as a military reservation, then changed its mind and allowed a handful of Icelandic immigrants to homestead the land on which they had squatted in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Endures Transition

In addition to farming, fish canneries and fish traps supported the community until the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, when the former closed and the latter, having depleted the once-abundant salmon runs, were banned. Point Roberts then began its transition into a retirement-vacation community.

“It’s at the tip of one of the most beautiful peninsulas in the world,” says Peter Mould, spokesman for Canadian developer George Hodgins, who owns 30 waterfront acres. But Hodgins’ plans for a 200-to-300 room resort hotel and golf course are “on hold” pending resolution of the point’s persistent water problems.

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The view from Point Roberts includes Vancouver Island, the San Juan chain, the Cascade Range and Mt. Baker. In addition, the sunny peninsula gets only 30 inches of rain annually, half of the rainfall in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia.

‘Like an Island’

“It’s like an island, surrounded not only by water but by a foreign country,” says Carl Jackson, a Water Board member and co-owner of Ben’s Store.

Mould says the point has “tremendous potential” as a destination resort--a spot where vacationers could spend a week or two--if it could develop activities like golf and boat tours to keep them busy.

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“If the water problem gets solved, our plans become a distinct possibility once again,” Mould says. “Without water, there’s no possibility. But I think it’ll happen.”

Amid reports of a resort development, many Canadians bought Point Roberts land in 1981 in anticipation of a boom. But the problems--the international border, the lack of a reliable water supply, and the everyday quirks of life--loom large.

Has Municipal Wells

Point Roberts has water from municipal wells, but not enough to supply resort development, says Syd Wallace, who chairs the Water Board. Lawn sprinkling is severely restricted in summer, but local officials say there is little danger of a repeat of the dry summer of 1973, when Point Roberts residents had to use milk trucks to bring 500,000 gallons of water in from Blaine.

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Wallace says Point Roberts has reached an agreement with the Greater Vancouver Water District and the municipality of Delta, British Columbia, for a pipeline and water supply to the point. But outgoing British Columbia Premier Bill Bennett has indicated no desire to sign the agreement.

Jim Kneeland, spokesman for Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, says the answer from Bennett is a firm no.

If British Columbia doesn’t budge, Wallace says his water board can revive a multimillion-dollar plan to pipe water 13 miles under Boundary Bay from Blaine. The Blaine pipeline was set to begin as long ago as 1984, but Point Roberts decided to give the Canadian option one more shot.

Fears Massive Growth

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The Canadian government fears that a secure water supply would trigger an unmanageable increase in Point Roberts’ population. But Wallace says the international border will always discourage development.

Americans cannot work in Canada except in unusual circumstances, and Canadians cannot work in Point Roberts unless they have a work permit, immigration authorities say.

Unless they have permanent resident status, usually unobtainable unless a close relative is American, Canadians can’t hold permanent jobs in Point Roberts and can’t live here more than six months a year.

Wallace estimates the year-round population at 500, roughly divided between Americans, many of them retired, and legal Canadian residents, but real estate broker Ruby White prefers the figure 1,000.

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Pick a Number

“The population of Point Roberts can be anything you want it to be,” she says. Most agree that the summer population can reach 4,000.

Point Roberts’ children, numbering around 55, are bused daily to school in Blaine, crossing four border checkpoints on their round-trip, 46-mile trek.

Until the lone supermarket and lone bank opened in the fall of 1982, most residents who wanted to bank or avoid high Canadian food prices had to travel to Blaine or Bellingham. The half-hour return trip made it tough getting the ice cream back home.

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The supermarket, the Market Place, features Canadian and U.S. currency drawers at each checkout counter. The parking lot is thick with British Columbia license plates and signs on each aisle tell Canadian bargain hunters what items they can take home duty-free.

Save Money on Gas

Canadians also drive to Point Roberts to fill up their gas tanks. Gas recently was 24 cents cheaper per gallon here, Jackson says.

Canadians once crossed the border by the thousands on Sundays to quench their thirst at Point Roberts’ giant waterfront taverns, the 999-seat Breakers and the 399-seat Reef. But British Columbia taverns are open on Sundays for the duration of Expo ’86, the World’s Fair in Vancouver, and the effect on Point Roberts has been dramatic.

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Sunday business is down at least 50% at the Breakers, says manager Georgina Blyth-Waters.

The biggest local crime problem in Point Roberts was a juvenile burglary ring, broken up by the two Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies here, Mark Young and Mark Joseph. Young says it’s handy that the Immigration and Naturalization Service agents at the border pre-screen the clientele, turning back those with criminal records.

Labor Day Stampede

Point Roberts is the second busiest U.S. northern border crossing this side of Detroit, ranking just behind Blaine, says Blaine Dahlstrom, supervisory INS inspector, who recalls his amazement last Labor Day when 16,000 people in 7,000 cars poured in.

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Despite the drop-off in Sunday tavern business, overall Sunday border traffic is still increasing, he says, “but the clientele is a little cleaner.”

Border traffic into Point Roberts in June averaged 5,000 to 6,000 cars daily on the weekends and 3,000 to 4,000 daily during the week, Dahlstrom says, an approximately 20% increase over 1985. One reason is Expo ’86.

“We’ve had many U.S. citizens on their way to the World’s Fair who look at their maps and come specifically down here to see this little piece of land that’s attached to Canada,” Dahlstrom says.

“People on both sides of the border consider this is not the United States and it’s not Canada. It’s Point Roberts.”

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