The Picturesque Victorian Seaport of Port Townsend, Washington Boasts a Rich Maritime Heritage, Grand Architecture and Abundant Outdoor Recreation in a Breathtaking Setting
Cost of Living: Above the National Average
On Washington's Quimper Peninsula, the most northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula and 45 miles northwest of Seattle, the picturesque Victorian seaport of Port Townsend (population 9,500) enchants nearly everyone. In the mid-1800s, it was prosperous and raucous, earning the nickname "City of Dreams." Unfortunately, the dreams faded in the 1890s when the U.S. economy declined and the railroad stopped short of town. As a result, Port Townsend lost much of its population and was nearly forgotten as the new century began. In the 1920s, it became a mill town (the Port Townsend Paper Mill is still here). Then in the 1970s, a renaissance began when Seattle urbanites rediscovered this picturesque village.
Today Port Townsend finds itself a charming, artsy time capsule with much of its 19th-century character intact. Retirees in particular are drawn here, seeking a cooler climate and a safe waterfront community set amid striking natural beauty. In fact, 52% of residents are age 45 or better. Nearly 40% of all locals have at least a four year college degree. Politics lean decidedly to the left, but racial diversity is minimal. The cost of living is 21% above the national average.
Funky and touristy, Port Townsend is known for its array of elegant, lovingly-preserved Victorian homes on the bluffs high above the harbor. These residences are in an area known as Uptown and have breathtaking water views and mountain vistas and can cost much more. The median home price is $310,000. Uptown homes are even more expensive. Smaller, more modest single family homes, many built in the 1930s and 1940s, start in the low- to mid-$200,000s. Kala Point, waterfront community with has single family dwellings and condominiums, also has homes starting in the high-$200,000s. There are five mobile home parks (including Sea Breeze Mobile Home Park, Hawkeye Park and Four Corners Olympic Home Park), but apartments are not plentiful.
When it comes to taxes, Washington is a friendly place to retire. There is no income tax so retirement income, including Social Security, is not taxed. Real estate is assessed at 100% of market value, but the state has four property-tax relief programs available seniors, people with limited incomes and veterans. These are the Property Tax Exemption Program, the Property Tax and Special Assessment Deferral Program, the Property Tax Deferral Program for Homeowners with Limited Incomes and the Tax Assistance Program for Widows or Widowers of Veterans. Excluding exemptions, the annual taxes on a $310,000 Port Townsend house are approximately $3,205. The state sales tax is 6% (food and prescription medications are exempt).
Port Townsend, Washington
Maritime history permeates Port Townsend, and a stroll through downtown conjures up images of an earlier time when boisterous saloons and busy brothels catered to customers just in from months at sea. Today, though, the old taverns are trendy shops, and historic red brick commercial buildings house art galleries, coffeehouses, restaurants and cozy pubs. The entire downtown, located along the water and full of nooks and crannies, is a National Historic Landmark. At the heart of it, Water Street is a great place to spend an afternoon browsing in a bookstore or enjoying a cup of coffee. Boats bob in the Port Townsend Bay, and on clear days, the views are invigorating. Restaurants are plentiful but tend to be expensive. For those needing occasional big city amenities, services and shopping venues, Seattle is two and a half hours away by car and ferry.
Port Townsend residents are welcoming and involved in community life. Volunteer opportunities range from acting as a docent at the Jefferson County Historical Society and Museum to working with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center's educational outreach programs. And there always seems to be something happening, with festivals and planned events taking place every month of the year. The Port Townsend Film Festival brings residents together for communal showings of classic films and documentaries. Downtown galleries entice visitors with food and art every firt Saturday of the month. The Victorian Festival plays up the town's colorful Victorian past and maritime traditions. The Wooden Boat Festival celebrates a classic mode of travel. The Key City Public Theatre presents a year-round schedule. The Northwind Arts Center's Arts to Elders program brings art to people residing in senior residences. Eleven museums, including military museums and historic homes, add to the cultural scene.
For outdoor lovers, few areas of the country are more inviting. To the west are the mountains, beaches and primeval rain forests of Olympic National Park. To the east and north are the waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Nearby Fort Worden State Park, once an army base, boasts beaches and sweeping views of the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges. Even the most entrenched homebody will be tempted outside to try a bit of beachcombing, hiking, camping, fishing, sailing or sea kayaking. Deer, sea otters and whales may even come out to say hello. Port Townsend also has two public golf courses, Discovery Bay Golf Club and Port Townsend Golf Course, and both are open year-round.
It is true, too, that tourists have discovered Port Townsend, and crowds and traffic swell in the summer. Since the town predates the automobile, walking is the encouraged mode of transportation (although many a Prius is seen around town). Jefferson Transit runs a shuttle loop around town, and a dial-a-ride service for people with disabilities is in place. Buses and ferries reach not just Seattle but also Whidbey Island and Victoria, British Columbia. Port Angeles, 30 miles to the west, has a commuter airport, but the nearest international airport is in either Bellingham (45 miles to the northeast) or in Seattle (45 miles to the southeast).
A terrific food co-op and a very active farmers' market make food shopping fun. The Port Townsend Public Library, a Carnegie library, has free wifi, public access computers, home book delivery, book clubs, a film series, an interlibrary loan program and more. Joining one of nearly two dozen churches and synagogues is always a good way to meet people. And a Port Townsend Christmas, when the downtown is all aglow, is magical enough to make one believe in Santa himself.
The Olympic Area Agency on Aging has an office in Port Townsend and offers legal advice clinics, help with filling out Veteran Administration paperwork and other services. Noon congregate meals are served at the Port Townsend Community Center three days each week.
Jefferson Healthcare Hospital (JHH) has 25 beds and is a Level IV trauma center. It is accredited by DNV Healthcare, a relatively new accreditation program approved by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Seventy-two percent of patients would recommend JHH to a friend, which is above the national average, and it accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, Mount Vernon is 30 miles away and has a VA outpatient clinic. Seattle, 45 miles away, has a VA hospital.
While this is a cool region, with summer temperatures in the 60s and 70s and winter temperatures in the 30s and 40s, it is not as rainy as might be expected. Protected by the "rain shadow" of the Olympic Mountains, it receives on average just 19 inches of rain per year. Still, winter days are short, drizzly and often gray, although the sun peeks out occasionally (it shines 152 days of the year). On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Port Townsend comes in well above the national average. The water quality meets the national average, but some residents think it has a funny taste.
There are drawbacks to a Port Townsend retirement. The biggest may be the Port Townsend Paper Mill, the area's largest private employer. It is located on Glen Cove on the southern edge of town and emits white water vapor and a sometimes unpleasant odor, which was once called the "smell of prosperity." The mill's owners have installed equipment upgrades to reduce the odors, but there are still complaints about the odor. People who are particularly sensitive to odors should probably consider living on the northern end of town. Port Townsend also has an earthquake risk that is 150% higher than the national average.
And yet, paper mill and all, people continue to come, helping this charming seaside village grow by 35% in the last couple of decades. The residents here, whether long established or brand new, love their town, and most agree that they have chosen a great spot for their retirement.
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