For a little more than three miles, Beach Drive Southwest twists and turns along the westernmost edge of West Seattle, with the Sound on one side of the sleepy road and cozy cottages on the other. But the tranquil views come to an abrupt halt just before you reach Dr. Ron Sterling’s house at the end of the street. The psychiatrist’s tiny home is surrounded by two construction sites where King County is updating the sewage system by Lowman Beach Park.
Something of a local fixture, Sterling has long decorated the corner house — which he rents for $1,300 a month — with rubber duckies, dressing them to reflect the seasonal holidays. At night, an extravagant lighting display that covers a large tree and the house’s exterior casts a neon glow over the dark residential street.
After sewer construction began last year, the ducks went on hiatus; in June they were replaced by signs created by Sterling, declaring the neighborhood “Pooh City.” On the fence hangs a menu for a nonexistent French cafe, Le Faux Cafe Merde (roughly translated to: The Fake Cafe of Crap).
“It went from Duckietude to Grumpitude,” said Sterling, petting his Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, Tommy. He wore a brown T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Do you know the way to Poohville, USA? [Hint: It used to be called Lowman Beach Park].”
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Sterling, 68, has been decorating the Beach Drive house since moving into it 10 years ago. He takes photos of the duckies and has a Zazzle.com store where he sells images of the duckies on greeting cards and T-shirts. The duckies have made him one of the most high-profile residents in the neighborhood; he’s often featured on local blogs, and his home has become a destination for lookie-loos.
“It’s all for the purpose of entertainment,” he said. “And kids absolutely love the duckies.”
But it seems not everyone is charmed, including a group of vandals who blew up the display in 2010.
His most recent adversary, though, is his landlord, Jim Coombes, who lives a few doors down. On Tuesday, Sterling and his wife, Sarah Fetzer, were given notices by Coombes’ lawyer, Brian J. Hanis, to remove the signs and clean up the exterior pathways within 10 days or face eviction.
While Sterling said his relationship with his landlord was amiable, Hanis said Coombes had been “asking him to take it down for a while, and this is the official process.” (Sterling said his landlord had mentioned “getting a lot of heat from the neighbors” but hadn’t expressed any urgency about removing the signs.) Coombes didn’t return calls.
According to V. Omar Barraza, a lawyer and vice chairman of the nonprofit Tenants Union of Washington, private tenants don’t have First Amendment rights. But, Barraza added, the city’s open-housing ordinance might offer protection because it prohibits discrimination based on political ideology.
Hanis said Coombes doesn’t care about Sterling’s political message. “It’s more about where you put the signs,” he said, adding that if they were inside the windows instead of out in a “common area,” that would be acceptable.
With a graying beard and portly figure, Sterling comes across as an affable — if intense — do-gooder. Though once a registered Democrat, he became disillusioned during 2008 and now considers himself an independent.
“There is nothing to describe what I am. I vote non-incumbent, straight ticket. I don’t care if the opponent is hallucinating, I’m voting for him.”
A few years ago, when the public debate over where to put a new overflow sewage tank reached a fever pitch, Sterling became incensed. Six buildings were razed, displacing 30 residents. (Sterling’s sign addressing that development: “Bye Bye Neighborhood.”)
Then, when the odor from the outdated underground pump station worsened last summer, Sterling said he got salmonella and diverticulitis from what he termed “sewage mist.”
Pamela Elardo, director of King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division, said: “I understand he’s had a number of complaints about odor. We have followed through on complaints from him.”
Ironically, the very construction Sterling is protesting — which includes updating the 1968 pump — is expected to solve the odor problems from Lowman Park Beach, Elardo said.
A product of the ’60s, Sterling was born in San Francisco (“Makes sense, doesn’t it?”) and grew up in Los Angeles before coming to Seattle in 1991. As a psychiatrist, he specializes in attention deficit disorder and has written a book on the subject.
Sterling is loquacious and prolific, sends emails several pages long, and tells stories that take multiple diversions, winding around a conversation much the same way Beach Drive winds along the shore. He keeps several websites devoted to neighborhood activism, including Onegoodflushdeservesanother.comand poohvilleusa.com.
The similarity of his name to Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” has haunted him throughout his life. “They write checks to Rod Serling — my bank puts up with it,” he said. “It’s funny because I am definitely out there. I am not your classic, standard-edition shrink, that’s for sure.”
Before he lived next to tiny Lowman Beach Park, he had long loved it.
“This is the only place we wanted to live,” he said. “Because it’s just impossible to find this anywhere. It’s a mini-estate. You’ve got a tennis court, shoreline, public access, park in your front yard.” Defending it is something of a personal mission.
Sterling is a rabble-rouser in the classic sense, said West Seattle resident and writer David Preston, 54. “He’s keeping alive the tradition of the political effigy,” said Preston, who has written about Sterling on his blog. “It used to be quite common to see that level of mockery and ridicule of politicians. Ron — he’s preserving a bit of political Americana that nobody else is doing.”
Preston noted that Sterling and the neighbors pushed back successfully against putting the overflow tank inside Lowman Beach Park.
“Ron and the neighbors have had a significant impact on the county’s decisions,” he said. “When you talk about quality-of-life issues … Ron is much more closely identified with that neighborhood than other people around there are.”
Over the next few days, Sterling will take down the signs, but the lights and other decorations will stay. Even though he’s upset, Sterling still has a sense of humor about it all. “What’s funny about this whole thing is that people will go, ‘Ron. It’s over. Get over it. You’ve turned into this angry person.’ No, I’m not an angry person. I’m actually having a lot of fun with this,” he said.
“Satire is fun.”