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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Historic farmhouse caught in the middle

Two companies want to expand on the West Plains

Gary and Robin Congdon have lived in their historic 1905 farm house since 1979. They are trying to prevent encroachment of industrial structures near their home on the West Plains. (Dan Pelle)

You might forgive Gary and Robin Congdon for feeling caught in the middle of economic changes on the West Plains.

Their historic farmhouse on West Thorpe Road near Interstate 90 sits smack dab between two proposed light industrial developments.

Together, the projects would add nearly 300,000 square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space to a neighborhood that has been in transition.

The former farmland has been vacant for years, leaving the Congdon home sitting alone much as it has since it was built in 1905. The house has a unique basalt rock exterior on the lower level and a double peak on its roof line.

“This is really an emotional thing for us,” said Robin Congdon during a hearing before the Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission last month.

“This is our home for 32 years. This is where we raised our children.”

She said Spokane County government officials are not doing enough to protect the home from encroachment.

“This is a horrendous development,” she said of the proposed facility by Wemco, a family-owned machine manufacturing business currently located near Airway Heights.

Wemco Vice President John Rouse said in an interview that the company wants to relocate to land that’s been owned by his family since 1934, initially for farming.

The company’s plan calls for setting the buildings at a 45-degree angle away from the Congdon home to provide more room for additional landscaping as a buffer for the residential parcel.

“I think we’ve been more than sensitive,” Rouse said. “I think we are doing the right thing.”

He said the project will allow Wemco to continue providing jobs in Spokane County.

“We are proud to be in this community,” he said.

The Rouse family obtained a zoning change to light industrial use in 2004 but delayed the project because of increases in commodity prices and economic recession in subsequent years, Rouse said.

The county hearing examiner, in approving the rezone, said that any industrial project would be subject to review by the Landmarks Commission.

Commissioners last month voted unanimously that the permits for the Wemco project should be denied by the county.

“I think this is a tragedy the county has rezoned that area the way they did it,” said Landmarks Commissioner Randall Wilson.

County officials said the landmarks vote is advisory only and that the project continues to be processed by the building and planning department.

While that is being done, the department is also reviewing a proposal by Odom Corp. to expand its beverage distribution business to property west of the Congdon home along Grove and Thorpe roads.

Odom is proposing 193,400 square feet of warehouse space along with a 16,500-square-foot office facility. The plan calls for the typical protections for groundwater and stormwater containment. It also would improve public roads in front of the facility.

Odom, which operates throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, currently ships beverages through a warehouse across Grove Road from the proposed development.

Company officials did not return a phone call requesting an interview.

County Commissioner Al French said he has been working with Odom corporate officials in recent months to get them to build at the West Plains site, which is part of the county’s economic growth efforts.

Their application said they would employ 150 people at the new facility.

Odom will face a similar review by either the Landmarks Commission or by the staffer at the City-County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office.

French said that the Landmarks Commission is engaging in “mission creep” by voting to deny the Wemco building permit.

City and county officials for at least 30 years have viewed the areas surrounding Spokane International Airport and I-90 as suitable for job expansion. Water and sewer lines were extended years ago to facilitate that growth, officials have said. Light industrial developments adjacent to old homes are seen elsewhere in the area.

The Wemco project involves a main facility of 64,000 square feet, plus a two-story attached office building and accessory shops. The main building would stand about 57 feet tall.

The Congdons’ home, the adjacent Sarsfield Farmhouse, was built in 1905 for Irish immigrants Patrick and Kate Sarsfield, who ran a dairy on about 50 acres on what was then called White Bluff Prairie.

According to its 2002 listing on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, the home “is one of the oldest and best-preserved homes in unincorporated Spokane County and conveys early 20th century building techniques,” specifically its rock work.

The exterior walls were pieced together by hand using a “blind mortar” technique to hide the cement. The yard features an original dry-stacked rock fence and bird bath.

“I consider that dry-stacked rock on the property to be very significant and fragile,” said Kristen Griffin, historic preservation officer.