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Originally published July 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 7, 2008 at 11:02 AM

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Beaux Arts Village celebrates 100 years of community values

The Eastside community of Beaux Arts Village celebrates its centennial this year while holding on to what it values most: its tall trees, private beach, community participation and commitment that neighbors get to know one another.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The sun sits low on the western horizon, reflecting diamonds off Lake Washington and a yellow halo around a forest that stands guard over a grassy beach.

On the lake, a dozen Coronado 15 sailboats jockey for position behind the starting line, their skippers anticipating the horn that marks the start of the weekly regatta of the Beaux Arts Racing Fleet (so named for its snappy acronym).

Standing on the dock in a herringbone sport coat and slacks, Dick Johnson, 75, clutches the horn and shouts encouragement.

"I want to see you finish first tonight!" he calls out to an inexperienced sailor, who barks back: "We'll be OK as long as we don't go over!"

Every summer since 1967, sailboat races have been a regular Wednesday-evening event in Beaux Arts Village, a woodsy and secluded lakefront community west of Bellevue celebrating its centennial this year with events throughout the summer.

With its tall trees shading narrow roads, and footpaths leading to its private beach, Beaux Arts (pronounced "Bozarts") enjoys a setting reminiscent of a campground. Its 117 houses area mix of historic cottages, midcentury ramblers and fancier new construction. Among its approximately 300 residents are retirees and younger families — a good number of whom have lived in their homes for decades or inherited them from their parents.

Protected from busy Bellevue by its tucked-away location, Beaux Arts eschews the iron gates and security keypads that make other affluent enclaves seem aloof. What also distinguishes the all-residential community is an atmosphere that encourages residents to get to know one another by pitching in on chores and projects — a necessity in keeping the small town operating smoothly.

"When the poor UPS guy gets lost and asks me if I know where a certain address is, I'll ask him the name of who he is trying to find so I can direct him," said Andy Stefan, who bought his first house in Beaux Arts in 1976 and never left.

Founded 100 years ago as an artists' colony that never quite came to pass, Beaux Arts Village incorporated as a town in 1954 to avoid annexation by Bellevue. It is run by a town council as well as the Western Academy of Beaux Arts, its 100-year-old founding organization that today operates like a homeowners' association, responsible for maintaining the beach and the roads and trails leading into it.

Plenty of other upscale communities have homeowners associations and private beaches. But while waterfront communities typically are lined with mega-mansions with their own private docks, Beaux Arts' shoreline is devoted to a 1,100-foot strip of green and two docks of community moorage.

Houses are pushed back into the woods.

Commitment to values

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When a tree limb blows down and blocks a road, a volunteer crew shows up with chain saws. Four times a year, residents gather for beach- and street-cleanup parties made more bearable with coffee, doughnuts and apple juice for the kids.

Kids take part in the chores, too. Stefan's two sons used to read water meters, mow the beach lawn and deliver the newsletter.

But Beaux Arts obviously is not all work. Community play revolves around the private beach, which is the common property of each Beaux Arts homeowner through an annual assessment.

A community supper on the beach follows the sailboat races on Wednesday nights. In the summer, there also is a picnic, a children's fishing derby followed by a camp-out with the dads, and a folksy welcoming of the lifeguards where the kids do decoupage.

"If people choose not to participate in all that we offer, they're really missing out on one of the great joys of living in this community," said Johnson, who has lived in Beaux Arts for 40 years.

In addition to community volunteering, Beaux Arts cherishes a style of governance it calls "cultural expectations." That's a fancy way of saying residents are expected to abide by unwritten rules that they be considerate of their neighbors and act in the best interests of Beaux Arts.

That model works pretty well until, say, someone cuts down a tree on someone else's property without permission. Which happened recently.

So as Beaux Arts begins its second century, it is struggling over whether to turn some of its cultural expectations into laws. Just this past Tuesday, the town council made the difficult decision to adopt a new ordinance that restricts tree cutting on private property.

The locals like to call such controversies "tempests in a teapot." For all the benefits of living in a small town, "the problem is that the politics can get very personal," said Stefan, who serves on the academy's board.

Two property owners with no plans to cut trees on their property did so just to protest the proposed law, Mayor John Rose said.

But as the debate over the ordinance evolved, it became less about trees and "more about how we relate to one another as neighbors," Rose said.

The new law requires a property owner who wishes to cut down a tree to post a notice for 14 days. The hope is it will lead to discussion among neighbors and result in an amicable outcome.

"If you can't have that kind of relationship in a town such as this, then I don't know where it's going to happen," Rose said.

No need for typical laws

Angela Kulp, the town's part-time clerk, predicted that new laws codifying cultural expectations will happen only if conflicts necessitate them.

The town boasts an inventory of 10 historic cottages dating back to its artist-colony days, which raises the question: Why doesn't Beaux Arts have a landmarks ordinance? The reason, Kulp said, is that the current owners of the historic homes are responsible stewards of the properties.

Because the cottages are not threatened, there is no momentum for an ordinance.

Beaux Arts' desire to remain modestly scaled is reflected in zoning laws that limit the square footage of houses to no more than 35 percent of lot size. A house's footprint also must not cover beyond 35 percent of its lot, which translates to generous setbacks and plenty of room for neighbors to breathe. According to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, five houses are for sale, listed from $950,000 to $1.8 million.

Beaux Arts residents hope the owners will search for buyers who are lured by Beaux Arts' values and committed to maintaining them.

Residents drawn in

Some residents move to Beaux Arts because of its proximity to downtown Bellevue and Interstate 90. Others are attracted to the convenient boat moorage at the private beach.

Kulp said some newer residents choose not to participate in the community and offer to write checks instead of investing their own sweat equity.

And that's totally fine, residents say, although "you can walk by a community beach cleanup only so many times before you start to feel guilty," said Kathy Bray, a 10-year resident who prefers to pitch in.

"You're drawn into it," explained her husband, Rich Bray. "The more time you spend here, the more you want to participate. It's not heavy-handed. You almost get loved to death a little bit. Everyone is so nice, and they all spend so much time on this."

Over the past five years, almost 40 new families have moved into Beaux Arts. Linda Mui came from Kirkland in 2003.

"We remodeled our home somewhat," she said. "We could have built a bigger house, but we didn't."

Mui said living in Beaux Arts has given her a new appreciation for what living among neighbors really means.

"It's my property, but what I do with it will affect everyone else in this community. That's the biggest thing I've learned since living here. It's not all about me."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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