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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Landmarks Commission at standstill while county sends message

Construction crews work to build a large manufacturing facility next to a historic 1905 farmhouse owned by Gary and Robin Congdon at 5520 W. Thorpe Road on Wednesday on Spokane’s West Plains. The couple have lived in the house since 1979. (Tyler Tjomsland)

A little more than a year after Spokane celebrated its historic legacy by hosting a national preservation conference, Spokane’s own historic preservation program is being ground to a halt.

The city-county Landmarks Commission that oversees historic listings and approves local tax incentives cannot take a vote because six of its 11 positions are vacant and county commissioners are withholding their approval of nominations to fill four of the vacancies. The Landmarks Commission needs at least seven members to constitute a voting quorum.

County Commissioner Al French said approvals are being withheld to send a message. French, an architect and developer, said the board believes the historic preservation program overstepped its authority.

Contributing to the problems, the director of Spokane’s Historic Preservation Office resigned last Friday, leaving that position on the commission vacant. The office provides staff support for the Landmarks Commission.

French said he’s unhappy with the Landmarks Commission and its former director over a stand they took last June seeking protection for the historic Sarsfield Farmhouse at 5520 W. Thorpe Road, which is in French’s commissioner district.

A 300,000-square-foot manufacturing and warehouse facility is under construction next door to the farmhouse – a project French has pointed to as a positive economic development.

The Landmarks Commission saw it as endangering the farmhouse and asked for more environmental studies of the project.

“You cannot rob an adjoining neighbor’s property rights,” French told the city’s planning director Tuesday. That director, Scott Chesney, appeared before commissioners for an update on the Historic Preservation Office, which his department oversees. Chesney said the Landmarks Commission was merely acting on a requirement by the county’s hearing examiner that the project be reviewed for its impact on the historic farmhouse.

The Wemco plant got its building permits.

French said that in holding up the appointments, he wants to make his view clear: The historic preservation program’s authority cannot extend to another property.

He also said he’s not sure he can support approval of some of the current nominees, but he did not identify which ones. “We are not comfortable with the names being offered up,” he said in an interview.

Besides the nominations to the Landmarks Commission pending before county commissioners, two other nominations are waiting for action at City Hall.

As a result, the commission was forced to cancel its meeting this month. At least one nomination for a residential historic listing has been held up.

In addition, Spokane Public Schools had a review of its design for Hutton Elementary School before the Landmarks Commission in January, but the commission could not take a vote to approve it. Instead, the city’s building department accepted minutes from the meeting that indicated support from the landmarks commissioners, school officials said.

Joanne Moyer, a former landmarks commissioner and longtime preservation advocate, said, “You have to be careful who you offend.”

She said she believes county commissioners “have the right to choose whoever they want” and that new members always bring fresh perspective.

But stoppage of the preservation program “has to be cleaned up,” she said.

Lynn Mandyke, co-vice chair of the Landmarks Commission, said hobbling the group’s work “affects citizens and businesses.”

Several years ago, the county reduced its funding for the Historic Preservation Office to $5,000 a year. At one point it had been $30,000 a year.

Every year, the County Commission receives $116,000 or more in a county recording fee surcharge to be used for historic preservation. Instead of funding the Historic Preservation Office, the county has been supporting the Fox Theater restoration with a $165,000 grant over the past four years. The commission also has approved spending $500,000 on restoration of the historic Courthouse.

“Historic preservation for the county continues to be a high priority,” French said.

Chesney told county commissioners on Tuesday that the $5,000 annual grant from the county was more of an administrative headache than it was worth. He suggested that the city take full control of the preservation office and that the county purchase the office’s services on a case-by-case basis.

Kristen Griffin, the former director of the Historic Preservation Office, had previously tried to persuade county commissioners to increase funding for the office but was denied.

French said she was viewed as being too much of an advocate.

Griffin was a key player in what is widely viewed as a successful National Preservation Conference convened here by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in October 2012.

The county and city both benefit directly from increased property taxes on preservation projects after 10-year tax incentives expire.

The Davenport Hotel’s property tax incentive ended last year, and the historic downtown property will pay $346,500 to state and local government and public schools starting this year. The property is now assessed at $25.7 million. The county’s share of that tax revenue is about $30,000.

Other historic projects and their assessed values are: the Crescent Building, at $18.4 million; the Hutton Building, $2.8 million; Steam Plant Square, $1.7 million; and the American Legion Building, $4.4 million.

This version of the story corrects the source of a County Commission fund for historic preservation, which comes from a surcharge on county recording fees.