Rob Chave starts planning a new chapter after 30 years with city

Rob Chave

He’s never been a high-profile kind of guy; he doesn’t grab headlines or make big splashes. But for three decades, Rob Chave has worked quietly, efficiently and skillfully — often behind the scenes — keeping the wheels of government well-oiled and turning.

If you’re among those who follow city government, you’ve no doubt seen him giving expert testimony at city council meetings, explaining and clarifying the often-arcane details of the latest tweaks and modifications to Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan, sustainability initiatives, zoning proposals and more.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to serve on city boards and commissions, you may know him as your city staff representative. He serves in this role on several including the Edmonds Planning Board, the Economic Development Commission, the Architectural Design Board and the Historic Preservation Commission –where he provides not only advice and ideas but uses his knowledge of how to get things done in city government to bring recommendations to fruition.

But all good things must end, and on Jan. 31 Chave closed his office door for the last time and walked out of city hall to begin a new chapter in retirement.

He’s worked under seven mayors. Over the years he’s seen the city grow from a much smaller footprint to the multi-department government of today.

“When I started here in 1991 the city had only four departments,” he recalled. “Fire, police, finance and a larger catch-all department called community development encompassing functions like public works, parks, planning — essentially everything else. Eventually these groups spun off into separate departments — it was very different times.”

A familiar face at Edmonds City Council meetings, Rob Chave provides information and background on the Westgate Development Plan in August 2014. (My Edmonds News file photo)

A man of diverse talents and interests, Chave found fertile ground at the City of Edmonds with a work environment that provided numerous opportunities to apply them in new and creative ways.

One of these was using his computer knowledge to bring Edmonds into the digital age.

“I’ve always been into technology,” he explained. “Shortly after I arrived I took the bull by the horns and set up Edmonds’ first LAN, connecting all workers in the planning department to a common server where they could store and share files, collaborate and get all the other benefits of getting away from stand-alone workstations to being on a common server.”

With his geek credentials now firmly established and the World Wide Web starting to move mainstream, Chave saw the wave of the future, and that the time was ripe to put the City of Edmonds among the small group of cities establishing an online presence.

“While it’s not a function that usually falls under planning, I jumped in to design and implement the city’s first website back in 1995,” he recalled. “It was on an old Compuserve account, and didn’t even have a City of Edmonds address – just a bunch of numbers. Those were the early days of the web, but it was the first city website in Snohomish County and established Edmonds as a regional technology innovator.”

A few years later, Chave saw the chance to again establish Edmonds as a leader by being the first city in the region to add a sustainability element to its Comprehensive Plan.

“It was 2009, and nobody else had a sustainability element at that time,” he said. “Gary Haakenson was mayor, and we attended a roundtable with other county officials to talk about climate change and sustainability.”

The roundtable left them both juiced up about the topic, and they put their heads together to discuss how this might be implemented in Edmonds.

“We pretty much arrived at the same idea that sustainability is much bigger than just climate change,” he explained. “It’s also about economic and social sustainability, and these, along with climate, became the three legs of the stool. I’d authored the city’s Comprehensive Plan several years earlier, so I took on the task of conceptualizing and writing up a sustainability element that would fit in. Looking back, it’s one of the things that stands out for me as an accomplishment of which I’m most proud.”

Rob Chave, second from right, was among several city staff members and then Mayor Dave Earlling, center, who accepted a 2012 Association of Washington Cities Municipal Excellence Award for Going Green. (My Edmonds News file photo)

Born in what was then the territory of Hawaii, Chave spent his early years on Oahu. While he was still preschool age, the family moved to the mainland, where his dad attended grad school at UC Berkeley. Subsequent years included stays in Ohio, Connecticut and Oregon as the family followed his dad’s employment.

“Dad worked as a city planner,” Chave observed with a smile. “It’s probably the only way I’d have known that this kind of a job existed. I mean, how else would you know growing up that city planning was a thing?”

Next came college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where Rob dove into the academic life with gusto, giving free rein to his natural love of learning.

“I majored in geography with a minor in social psychology, but I took classes in all areas,” he recalled. “It’s fair to say that I studied most everything in college. But then I graduated in 1977 and found myself wondering what I’d do to – ya know – pay the bills.”

To stay occupied (and pay the bills), Chave took a temporary job with Northwestern University as a student loan officer. One of the big benefits: As a college employee he could take classes for free – a perfect situation for the intellectually curious Chave.

“It was great!” he recalls.  “I took arts classes, language classes – all the fun stuff I didn’t take as an undergraduate.”

After a year of this, it became clear to Chave that graduate school was the next logical step. He applied and was accepted at Cornell University, where in 1980 – following his dad’s path –  he completed a master’s degree in city planning, with a minor in historic preservation.

While at Cornell, he met his wife, and after graduation they relocated to Florida to be near her parents.

Chave’s recollections of Florida are decidedly mixed.

“Florida does a great job of advertising itself to folks tired of northern winters, but there’s a lot they don’t tell you,” he said. “Like you can’t walk barefoot anywhere because of the fire ants, there’s an alligator in every sinkhole, and the palmetto bugs – hugest roaches I’ve ever seen – are everywhere. Whenever you go into a dark room you turn on the light first and wait for them to scatter. It’s pretty creepy.”

After almost six years, the couple had had enough of Florida and came to Seattle, loved it and in 1988 bought a classic 1911 craftsman house — “a grand old house” — on Queen Anne Hill. Chave still lives there.

“My first job up here was with the City of Auburn,” he recalled. “I stuck there for five years, and when an opening came up in 1991 for a city planner in Edmonds, I went for it.”

Edmonds and Chave were a good fit from the start.

“Working for a small city government gives you lots of variety, and I was fortunate to be able to do a huge range of things,” he explained.  “You’ve got to be a jack-of-all-trades and able to turn on a dime. It’s energizing. You stay interested because there’s always something new to do.”

Rob Chave accepts the 2011 Employee of the Year award from Mayor Dave Earling. (My Edmonds News file photo)

Along the way, Chave received increasing accolades for his accomplishments, among which was being named Employee of the Year in 2011 in recognition of his work on local implementation of the Growth Management Act, developing the Edmonds GIS (Geographic Information System), downtown business district zones, and the first sustainability element in the Comprehensive Plan.

While over the years the job kept him interested and satisfied, he faced some personal challenges and setbacks along the way. In  2007, he was diagnosed with cancer, but it was caught early and has not recurred. In 2012, he suffered a major loss with the death of his wife, but he was able to find healing in his work and international travel, mostly to Europe.

“After my wife died one of the first things I did was travel to Sweden and buy a Volvo C30 straight from the factory,” he recalled with a smile. “I drove it all over Europe – nine different countries – ending up in London, where I had it shipped back to the States. I’m still driving that car today!”

Rob Chave and partner Jamie Alagna look forward to traveling the world in retirement. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Chave’s life took another pivot two-and-a-half years ago with a chance encounter at the tasting bar of a Queen Anne wine shop, when he struck up a conversation with another patron, Jamie Alagna. They sipped, laughed, found many shared interests and began seeing each other with increasing regularity. Several weeks ago, they decided to formalize their relationship by combining households in Chave’s Queen Anne home.

“We’re now officially domestic partners,” Chave said with a smile.

Looking to the future, travel is high on the couple’s list with France a hoped-for first destination.

“We’ll have to see how things go with COVID restrictions,” observed Chave, “but we’re hopeful we could head across the pond as soon as this year.”

In addition to travel, Chave’s retirement plans include sorting through four households’ worth of belongings that have collected in his basement over the years.

“There’s stuff there from my mother, my aunt, my wife’s parents, and I just haven’t had time to go through it,” he confessed. “I’m interested in genealogy, history and antiques, and there’s lots of treasures and old documents among these belongings. I’ve been wanting to sort through it for years, and now I’ll have the chance.  Speaking of which, I have four silver tea sets – do you need one?”

Edmonds Planning Department’s Michelle Martin holds up the commemorative plaque presented to Rob Chave at his Jan. 31 retirement reception via Zoom.

At his Jan. 31 retirement reception, city officials from Mayor Mike Nelson to new Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin summed up Chave’s legacy with the City of Edmonds.

“I’ve known him the least time of anyone here,” McLaughlin confessed. “So I visited My Edmonds News, a rich repository of local and current affairs, to get some insight into Rob’s history. Taking over as interim Development Services Director when Shane Hope retired in 2021, he found himself in the middle of a very tough time,” she continued. “Housing debates were hot, tree codes were hotter, and all this time COVID was flaring and we had to go to remote work. In response, Rob oversaw digitizing the permit process, which saved both time and trees. And this is just part of it. In short, Rob is a great leader and the team in planning reflects this. Seeing that strength shows me the great stuff Rob has brought over the years.”

Mayor Mike Nelson then summed it up.

“Rob always keeps an even keel,” the mayor said. “He is the least polarizing person I know. He has a great sense of humor, an encyclopedic knowledge, never gets excited, and is the utmost professional. His institutional knowledge will be sorely missed.

“Rob, you have left a profound impact, and personify everything that is wonderful in local government,” Nelson concluded. “On behalf of myself and the City of Edmonds, thanks from the bottom of my heart.”

— By Larry Vogel

  1. While serving on the Planning Board, it was my opportunity to meet Rob and observe his dedication to his craft and our great city. He is a class act. I’ve always appreciated his deep intellect, talents and easy manor. His patience and grace in explaining complex land use issues and policies to the public, during public hearings, and to the board, was a highlight of my experience. What a rare gift.

    I’ll never forget, after a long late night public hearing, he took time with me in the parking lot to tutor me on issues that I had little background with. Time didn’t seem to be a concern; sharing and teaching was his goal.

    When his wife passed away, we mourned and grieved together.

    Those of us who appreciate orderly land use and workable and balanced public policies will miss his leadership.

    Thank you for your service!

    Safe travels.

    Wishing you a memorable retirement.

  2. He really was always on an even keel while I was on the council. Mayor Nelson .. .and every mayor he worked with.. is right in singing his praises. Professional, non-polarizing, responsive, calm. He was the epitome of a servant-leader. I wish you well in retirement, Rob, and hope you can get across the pond soon!

  3. Thank you, Rob, for all the great work you’ve done for Edmonds over the past 30 (gulp!) years! You were also a great guide to me when I first joined the City in 2014 and have been an invaluable member of the City team the whole time. I’m glad I could serve as a guide for you at least once – by paving the path to retirement one month ahead of you!!

    1. Happy Trails to you too Patrick! You have been an incredible resource as well and helped the City receive the “1st” Creative District designation by the State. I will attempt to fulfill that vision for you.

  4. Bravo Larry on that wonderful story about the incredible Rob Chave. I recall the day his wife died unexpectedly and how he handled that loss so stoically….and later … that twinkle in his eye when he talked about his Volvo purchase and subsequent travels. His intelligence, calmness, and historical knowledge will greatly be missed but I so happy for him. Happy Trails, Rob – thank you for your service.

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