February 22, 2014 in Editorial, Opinion

Editorial: Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission needs new look


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

The Landmarks Commission is due for a remodel.

Although the recent resignation of the city of Spokane Historic Preservation Office director was unfortunate, as is Spokane County Commissioner Al French’s hold on commission appointees, those actions have triggered a timely reassessment of the commission’s structure.

The preservation office has long done the groundwork for commission decision-making, and the city carried the bulk of the financial burden; a little more than $150,000 in the most recent budget. The county had contributed $30,000 to the commission’s work, but only $5,000 this year. The bulk of the $100,000-plus the county has received from a real estate excise tax was dedicated to restoration of the Fox Theater, then the Spokane County Courthouse.

Both projects were worthy of the county’s attention.

And the reality is that very little of the commission’s work concerns projects outside the city. In 2010, the commission did 29 design reviews for the city, one for the county. The application seeking protection for the Sarsfield Farmhouse on the West Plains was a tough case involving adjacent properties with longtime owners; one who wanted to build a light-manufacturing plant, the other – the farmhouse owner – afraid construction would disturb its unique rock masonry.

The Landmarks Commission sided with the homeowners, the county commissioners with the business, which is under construction. But French says the historic preservation office was out-of-bounds in trying to limit the property rights of one owner in favor of another, so the county has declined to renew its two appointments to the commission. Because the city also has two vacancies on the 11-member panel, the panel has no quorum, and so cannot take any action.

This is an unfortunate turn for the Landmarks Commission, and a city that prides itself on the buildings and neighborhoods preserved for future generations. The achievements attracted a National Preservation Conference in November 2012. The wreckage from the Sarsfield case must be cleared away, and the preservation effort revitalized.

The solution might be a city commission supported by the historic preservation office available for hire by the county or any other government jurisdiction with a project in need of a review. City Planning Director Scott Chesney is preparing a study of that option for presentation to the County Commission next week.

If the draft is acceptable, his office will draft the code amendments that would be necessary to make the change. Public meetings would follow.

In the meantime, Chesney says, the county and city should confirm the pending Landmark Commission nominations.

The plan outline sounds promising. We are confident Spokane’s preservation community would not let a poor one be implemented. The city has a reputation to protect along with landmarks like the Davenport Hotel and the Fox.

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