A Park Emerges

Kah Tai Lagoon:  Cursed and Crossed, Filled and Embattled – A Park Emerges
by Kevin Burke,
then Port Townsend Parks Superintendent;
from Special Leader Insert, Port Townsend Parks Guide, 28 November 1984

Kah Tai Lagoon has always been a prominent feature of Port Townsend’s landscape. Over the years it has been the center of a number of activities and controversies. Here is a brief recapitulation:

Kah Tai is a term once used by the local aboriginal people meaning “to carry” or “to pass through.”  The words were then used to refer to the valley that exists between North Beach and the boat haven. It was through this valley that natives would portage their canoes from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Townsend Bay so they could avoid the currents and rip tides, which exist off Point Wilson.

The lagoon at the end of the portage was a hunting ground as well as the site of an Indian encampment.  Kah Tai came to refer not only to the portage, but also to the settlement and bay at the end of the valley.

When Captain George Vancouver arrived at Kah Tai in 1792, Kah Tai Lagoon was a saltwater marsh that was flushed by the tides. Vancouver and his crew observed four tall poles near the lagoon. The Indians apparently made nets of nettles, which they slung between the poles, and flocks of ducks would become entangled in the nets as they flew low into the marshland. Vancouver named the area Port Townsend in honor of the Marquis of Townshend, a famed English commander. When the first white settlers arrived in 1851, they adopted the name Port Townsend and changed the name Kah Tai Valley to Happy Valley. Only the lagoon at the end of the valley retained the name Kah Tai.

When the boom of 1889 hit the area, the small body of water became an obstacle to development.  Two trestle bridges were constructed, one connecting Lawrence Street with the western suburbs and the other an extension of San Juan Avenue. By 1907 the trestle bridges across the “swamp” had deteriorated to the point of being dangerous. The Leader reported that many drivers would go around the lagoon rather than risk their teams across the rickety structure. During this era the City Council had ordained that all rubbish was to be dumped from the midpoint of the Lawrence Street Bridge, which was said to have caused a “pile of rubbish big enough to build a courthouse of.” Councilmembers were warned that herds of rats “as big as good-sized dogs” prospered there, causing a threat to the public safety. A short time later the trestles had to be closed to public traffic due to unsafe conditions.

By 1930 Sims Way was constructed, providing a new access across the lagoon. In 1933 the Chamber of Commerce made a proposal to the Department of Game to declare Kah Tai a Federal Game Reserve. However, the proposal was turned down since 300 acres was the minimum acreage for a reserve and only 160 acres were available around the lagoon.

In 1935 the Chamber of Commerce asked the American Legion and VFW for assistance in cleaning up the lagoon and pulling up the old trestle pilings which marred the view. It was hoped that this volunteer beautification effort would transform the smelly snag-infested area into a place of beauty. Unfortunately the local civic groups did not have the resources to proceed very far toward that goal.

In 1938 the WPA revitalized the beautification plan by providing 15 men and $9,000 in federal money. The project included the removal of hundreds of old snags and pilings, the construction of a water control system, the draining of stagnant saltwater from the swamp and the turning of fresh water into the area by tapping a city reservoir overflow that ran nearby. Check gates were built under Sims Way which prevented backing in of salt water and tended to keep the pond at a constant level.

Wild rice was planted in an effort to make the lagoon more attractive to waterfowl.  It worked. By the end of 1938 the bird population had risen from about 350 to 800. The State Department of Game recommended again that a Game Reserve be established at the site to provide sanctuary for the numerous shoveler, pintail, mallard, widgeon, teal, scaup, and bufflehead which were found there.

In 1939, 5,000 Montana black-spot trout were placed in the lagoon for the purpose of catching mosquitoes. In August of that year, only kids were permitted to fish. The kids didn’t have much luck and the reason is a matter of speculation. Perhaps the trout could not survive in the brackish waters of the lagoon or maybe the burgeoning duck population had gobbled up most of the young fish.

Due to the brackish character of the water, plant food species for waterfowl were slow to establish and the birds were getting hungry. Contributions by local citizens provided enough supplementary duck food so that by 1940 the duck population had exploded to an estimated 4,500 birds. The ravenous birds became a nuisance as they began to invade local farms and gardens in search of food. People who grew crops in the area were given permission to shoot the ducks on sight. Despite its sanctuary status, Kah Tai Lagoon once again became a popular hunting ground until the duck population had dwindled and the city firearm ordinances were passed.

In 1963 the lagoon became the center of a dramatic public controversy. The Port of Port Townsend, with a promise of federal funding, forwarded a plan to expand the Boat Haven. The plan called for disposal of 231,000 cubic yards of dredge spoils in the lagoon since other dumping sites were too costly. When the plan came to the public’s attention, a great wave of protest arose.  Letters and petitions came before the Port Commission and City Council stating that the Port’s actions would irrevocably destroy a very beautiful and unique entry into Port Townsend and create an ugly wasteland. One individual accused the Port Commissioners of “ignoring the desires of the majority of the people” and “having a mercenary goal.” He went on to file a suit against the Port in an attempt to stop the project.

Other members of the public gave their unqualified support to the Port’s plan. One man summarized:  “This so-called lagoon is just a swamp…and the Port isn’t trying to bite anybody’s ear.” Momentum for the project was on the Port’s side. Objectors to the filling of part of Kah Tai now resigned themselves to holding out for guaranteed development of the area for park purposes. In early 1964 the complaint against the Port was dismissed by the court and the filling of the lagoon began. A commitment for three years dormancy after completion of the fill was made by the Port.

In 1968 the City of Port Townsend Comprehensive Plan was adopted. The area around the lagoon was designated as Public Use (P-I).

In 1971 the Port Commission developed a plan for a park at Kah Tai Lagoon which included dredging to create an island with picnicking on the north shore of the lagoon. Also in the plan were parking lots, facilities for rental of non-motorized watercraft, lawns, nature walks, and a blacktopped path encircling the lagoon for pedestrians and bicycles.  The City Council declined to sponsor the plan and it never went any further.

In 1976 two events occurred which would again make the Kah Tai Lagoon area the focal point of public controversy. An ad hoc Intergovernmental Advisory Committee was formed to study possible development scenarios for Kah Tai. The committee was made up of representatives from the County Planning Commission, the City Council, the City Park Commission and the Port Commission. The group held a town forum meeting with the community and prepared a summary report. Also during that year, a private landowner applied for a rezone of 12 acres near the lagoon from P-I (public) to C-2 (commercial).

In early 1977 the City Council granted the rezone and a few months later, Safeway Stores, Inc. announced plans to build a 40,000 square foot store on the site. The council also adopted “in concept” Alternative #3 of the ad hoc committee’s summary report, which called for the commercial development of a large portion of the south side of the lagoon with some areas reserved for park development.

By the end of 1977 the Port Commission had adopted a Planned Unit Development of which 10.6 acres would be used for roads, parking, and park.  The remaining 12.35 acres were to be divided into three parcels which would be developed commercially.  A network of waterways would be dredged out in the park areas, creating new marshlands. A system of boardwalks, decks, and bridges through the wetlands was proposed as well as an environmental interpretive center.

Twenty percent of all lease/sale funds were to go toward maintenance. There were strong feelings from some sectors that these development plans might destroy the economic viability of the downtown business area, as well as mar the aesthetic value of the lagoon area and disturb the wildlife there.

The Kah Tai Alliance, a local citizen group, was formed to preserve the area for park purposes, and filed legal challenges to both the commercial rezone and the Port’s Planned Unit Development scheme to insure that the environmental impacts of the proposed developments were clearly understood before any construction began. The Port Commission received petitions with hundreds of signatures both for and against its project.

The tide was not with the Port on this occasion.  Their PUD proposal did not meet the requirements of the city’s zoning code so the City Council declined to approve it and the plan went no further.  However, the commercial rezone was ultimately upheld by the State Supreme Court and Safeway was allowed to begin construction.

In the spring of 1979 the Port Townsend Planning Commission conducted a community-wide survey to determine if changes were needed in the 1968 Comprehensive Plan. A total of 2,500 surveys were distributed and 1,124 were returned (45% response). On the questions concerning the Kah Tai area the survey showed the following:
  • 60% of respondents agreed with the existing Comprehensive Plan designation of Kah Tai Lagoon area north of Sims Way as park and open space.
  • 79% of respondents felt that Kah Tai should become a municipal park.
  • 67% of respondents felt large-scale commercial, multi-family residential, and single-family residential uses at Kah Tai were not acceptable.
  • 51% of respondents felt that some small-scale commercial development and some public use would be acceptable.
In 1980 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified 44 Washington wildlife habitats as areas that should be environmentally preserved. Kah Tai Lagoon was ranked 10th on the list.  The City Parks Commission applied for a Land Acquisition Grant from the InterAgency Committee for Outdoor Recreation (IAC) for property at Kah Tai.

In early 1981 the acquisition grant was approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The total value of the grant was $236,000, of which the Department of the Interior contributed $118,000 and the IAC $59,000. The city’s local match share of $59,000 was made by donations of private property by several individuals.

By 1982 approximately 80 acres of land at Kah Tai had been acquired for park purposes. The property involved had come from several sources:  purchase and donations from private landowners, dedications of property by the city, the county and the Port, plus leases of property from the Port and the Public Utility District.

Late in 1982 the City Council approved in concept a development plan which called for the creation of a “nature-oriented park at Kah Tai Lagoon, providing opportunities for compatible recreational uses.” An application for a $300,000 development grant was submitted to the IAC. Elements of the plan included development of trails, berms, plantings, a play meadow, a picnic shelter, parking, and restroom facilities on the south side of the lagoon, and creation of a nature center with boardwalks and a wildlife observation post on the north side.

In the spring of 1983 the IAC decided to fund the project in phases.  A $57,000 matching grant was awarded to the city to develop the south side of the lagoon only.  The city’s portion of the match was more than provided when over 150 individuals and organizations pledged nearly $145,000 in cash, materials and volunteer labor to the project.

As of this writing in fall 1984, the final touches are being added to the design plans with construction documents slated to be completed this winter.  Actual construction of Kah Tai Park is scheduled for the spring and summer of 1985.

In a recent visit, a wetland specialist from the State Department of Ecology declared that Kah Tai Lagoon is a healthy high-quality wetland environment. In spite of decades of tampering at the hands of humans, the lagoon remains a vibrant and dynamic ecosystem. And the “flats area” where dredge spoils were dumped 20 years ago has become a dramatic testimony to the healing, transformative powers of nature, as over 70 species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses have established themselves there.

Our goal is to protect and study this unique natural inheritance and to provide access and information to the public so that all may better appreciate the wonders of this natural system.

It is ironic that the term “Kah Tai,” which once referred to all of Port Townsend Bay and the Port Townsend area, means “to pass through.” To those of us whose life includes a passage through Port Townsend, Kah Tai Lagoon can become a symbol of that unique quality of nature inherent with us that strives, even in adversity, for health, harmony and self-expression.