Wandering Google Maps can reveal magical geographies. When preparing for a recent first-time trip to Vancouver, I started zooming in and out and around the area to see what the surroundings are like. That was how I first learned of the existence of Point Roberts, Washington.
The town sits about 20 miles directly south of Vancouver, on a little peninsular tip of land, jutting just below the 49th parallel. That's the line, as you probably know, that generally demarcates the separation between Canada and the United States, at least from the middle of Minnesota westward. This borderline cuts between Blaine, Washington, and White Rock, British Columbia, the two counterpoint cities of this west coast end of the U.S.-Canada border. But through the waters of Boundary Bay, the line keeps heading west, true along the 49th and directly through the peninsula at this tip of British Columbia. To the south of the line sits Point Roberts, a 5-square mile fingernail of B.C. that is actually part of the United States.
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Known as an exclave, Point Roberts is a bit of an oddity in that it’s not an island and yet it’s completely separated from the rest of the U.S. The only way to travel from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington and the U.S. is by passing through one international border crossing into Canada, driving 25 miles, and passing through another international border crossing into the U.S., which is a daily trek for schoolkids above third grade. Cars – a fair amount, but not a crush – regularly line up at either side of the border crossing at Point Roberts. Another 20 miles past the border at Blaine is Bellingham, Washington, the seat of Whatcom County, which oversees this unincorporated town in a strange bit of almost international bureaucracy.
To deploy a somewhat crude simile, Point Roberts is like the foreskin of America; cutting it off probably would have been more convenient, but keeping it has some benefits.
The border crossing is probably the biggest inconvenience, but it’s also the source of much of the town’s economic power.
Resident Kathryn Booth says the border tends to dominate outsiders’ perception of the town. As the operator of pointrobertstourism.com, she’s the self-appointed public relations face of Point Roberts, and she’s heard her share of incredulous visitors since moving here in 2009. “They’ll say ’Oh my god, how do people live here? It’s like a police state.’ And in some ways it kind of feels that way.”
“On the one hand, it’s been rated the safest community because it’s like having a really, really, really strict security guard gate,” Booth says.
This is the sort of quiet small town where the 1,100 full-time residents keep to themselves and retirees bask in the natural beauty. Eagles nest, whales commute past daily, and there’s a killer view of Mt. Baker* from the beaches at the south end.
Beautiful and sparsely developed, Point Roberts is the kind of town that has an off-season, which is now. Summertime brings a few thousand more people in to relax in the many vacation homes sprinkled throughout town. Most of the visitors are Canadian, and many homes have both the maple leaf and the stars and stripes on display. The town’s harbor is also an attraction, especially for boaters and yachters in the warm months.
But even year-round, Point Roberts is a popular place to visit, especially among Canadians. The town’s charm and amenities, though, are not what makes people sit in line at a border crossing. Groceries are 30 percent cheaper in Point Roberts. Gas is a dollar cheaper. Without the 12 percent value added tax Canada has, buying goods in the U.S. – even this very small part of the U.S. – is significantly less expensive than in Canada. Also, many online retailers don’t ship to Canada, and if they do it’s really expensive, so a lot of the traffic crossing the border ends up at one of the five shipping and receiving businesses in town.
Point Roberts is also a good place to get away – or to hide out. Thanks to Canada’s fairly strict border crossing rules, it’s difficult for people with criminal records to cross over, so even ex-felons who can move freely about in the U.S. wouldn’t easily be able to find their way into Point Roberts. This is part of the reason the town is, unofficially, home to about 50 people in the U.S. Marshals Service’s Witness Security Program, or Witness Protection. Other residents have come here seeking their own protection.
“That border works like a charm,” says Booth. “Restraining orders and things don’t hold up. But if they can’t get a passport, the border works real good.”
But the border also causes headaches. Booth says that it’s not so much a crossing issue for locals, most of whom don’t have to cross every day, but more of a logistical one. For example, she says it took a year of wrangling to get the border rules altered to allow Canadian tomatoes and peppers to cross over – so long as they’re pre-sliced.
More pressing, Booth says, is the disjointed relationship between Point Roberts and governing Whatcom County. She says the town has a few committees of volunteers who try to steer county officials to meet the town’s needs. But the process can be slow.
“They’ve been working for two years to get a streetlight put in on one of the corners,” Booth says.
Locals clamor for their own elected officials, but fall below a population threshold. Booth is hoping enough people will move to town permanently to give locals a louder voice.
And though the town does fine with its shipping and gas sales and grocery store, there’s not much of an economy to speak of.
“It’s difficult to make a living here,” says Steve O’Neill, a 12-year resident. “We don’t really promote a lot of our businesses because there’s no real businesses to promote. People that are going into the grocery store and buying gasoline and shipping packages, they already know about this place.”
He says the town needs to develop more reasons for people to come into town, and to stay. But he says change is not high on many people’s list in Point Roberts.
“I don’t think a lot of people want growth. But I think we need enough to provide some jobs for the people and a future for kids,” says O’Neill, who’s third child is nearly done with high school. “Kids really have to leave, unless they stay and do some construction work or … well, that’s about it.”
He’s hoping to kick off some of that development with a 30-room eco resort and restaurant he’s trying to build. He wants it to be an attraction that will pull more tourists into town and to help drive business to other local shops and restaurants. But the process hasn’t been easy. He said it took more than 6 years to get the permits he needs, mainly because his shoreline site falls under some state restrictions.
“When I started on this I had no permit and the money to do it. Now I’ve got the permit and no money to do it,” says O’Neill. “Talk about a barrier to growth and employment, to make someone spend huge sums of money and go for six years to try and do something.”
He’s currently in talks with potential investors
“Hopefully this will spurn a growth and a cottage industry here. And hopefully we’ll get known as an area that’s a cool artisan community,” O’Neill says.
What’s it known as now?
“Um,” O’Neill pauses. “A witness relocation program?”
Photo credit: Nate Berg
*A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to a view of Mt. Rainier. The view is actually of Mt. Baker.