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Originally published Saturday, August 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Profile: Developer sets sights on what others don't see

Developers have eyed Washington's rugged, scenic coastline for many decades — and, for whatever reason, have passed on developing...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Developers have eyed Washington's rugged, scenic coastline for many decades — and, for whatever reason, have passed on developing it.

Now, an Oregonian, Casey Roloff, has broken through with plans to build an entire town, Seabrook, 18 miles north of Ocean Shores.

Who is Casey Roloff, and why does he think he can pull this off?

Most developments as big as Seabrook — 400 housing units plus stores and civic amenities — are done by big corporations. Roloff is an anomaly.

At 33, he's built homes on the Oregon coast, but nothing near the scale of Seabrook.

Still, Donna Shirey, a veteran contractor and president of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, is so convinced Roloff will succeed that she and her husband have bought a lot in the new community.

"He has so much self-confidence, and that's very attractive," Shirey said. "And for being so young, he has tremendous vision for what he wants to see in this land."

Said Laurence Qamar, the Portland planner Roloff hired to oversee Seabrook: "When he sets his mind toward accomplishing something, he has great relentlessness."

Roloff grew up in Vancouver, Wash., the youngest of three children. He describes his parents as entrepreneurs, who at various times owned a video store, painted houses and bought and sold real estate. Their financial situation was never kept from the children.

Ups and downs

"We had some ups and downs, but we had a great time whether we had a nickel or $100," Roloff said. "Once you figure that out, what is there to be afraid of? I've never been afraid of not having anything."

A dreamer, he was an indifferent student in high school but buckled down in college to earn a business degree from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

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The genesis of that turnaround was Laura Pfeifer, now his wife of 11 years. They have two preschool-age daughters.

Before he met Pfeifer, he'd been, in his words, "a lost soul."

"I just kind of turned it on and figured it out because I wanted to marry this girl," Roloff said.

It was, said his mother Robyn Roloff, a wise decision.

"He married the right girl," she said. "She completed him and gave him a reason to be who he is today. She brought out the best in him."

After their marriage, the couple moved to Lincoln City, an Oregon beach town where their families lived. Like his parents, Roloff took an entrepreneurial path.

During college, he made $30,000 a summer painting houses.

"A light bulb went on that if you take care of people and do a good job, you'll be rewarded," he said.

So he formed a Lincoln City house-painting company. When the opportunity presented itself to build a house, he did that, too, garnering private financing from a group of doctors he met through a friend.

By the late 1990s, he and his wife were developing properties and came upon a strip of undeveloped Lincoln City beach. A thousand feet deep, it offered 200 feet of beachfront. On one side was an RV park; on the other, a cluster of manufactured housing.

"No one wanted that land," he said, because their vision stopped with adding more of the same.

Challenge, not problem

But where others saw a problem, Roloff saw a challenge. That's typical of him, his wife said.

"He'll just think and think and think until he figures it out," Laura Roloff said. "It's not stressful to him. He loves it."

While he loved Lincoln City and its many miles of windswept beaches, "it's also where I learned about bad development ... hotels, strip malls, factory stores," he recounted.

"It was shortsighted development by people thinking how they could make a buck and get out of there," he said. "They were not thinking long term."

His answer to that approach is Bella Beach: 55 cottages begun in 2000 (now 80, thanks to three additional acres).

"At the time, the real-estate market on the coast was extremely flat," he recalled. "I couldn't make a mistake. I had to do something extremely creative. The formula we came up with was cute beach houses people can buy and then rent out on a nightly basis."

To maximize his formerly rejected piece of coastline, he hired Qamar to cluster the cottages in a way to create a sense of community. It was Roloff's first foray into the New Urbanism philosophy he's using on a larger scale at Seabrook.

Roloff had sold more than half of Bella Beach's cottages by the time he secured financing for the project, and "there wasn't one house that wasn't presold before the foundation went in," he said proudly.

Resales sell for around $500,000.

The Roloffs made millions on Bella Beach, but Laura Roloff said her husband "has never been motivated by money."

"At first he kept telling me, 'I just want to prove myself,' " she said. "He said he'd build a house, and he did. Then he built a subdivision. Then he built a neighborhood."

Now he's in Washington building Seabrook and has a dozen or so people working for him. His wife isn't surprised.

"He's such a goal setter, and he achieves it," she said.

Family members describe Roloff as a self-starter, visionary, problem solver and fearless risk-taker.

But the tall, athletic-looking man is aw-shucks self-effacing. He's also very much a philosopher in his approach to Seabrook and talks about that philosophy, New Urbanism, with contagious missionary zeal.

"I'm young enough, and I had to carve a niche for myself," he said. "And this is it."

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com

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