Politics of Preservation

Why Spokane's Landmarks Commission has found itself in a tug of war between city and county officials

Politics of Preservation
Young Kwak
Spokane County Commissioner Al French wasn't happy with the city's historic preservation officer — so he blocked appointments to the Landmarks Commission.

For the first two months of this year, the joint City/County Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission was paralyzed.

Instead of reviewing nominations to the local historic register or helping property owners take advantage of related tax credits, the commission could do nothing. It didn't even have enough members for a quorum. Five of its 11 seats were vacant, waiting to be filled by the city and county.

Plenty of applications had been turned in for those openings, but months went by without new appointments. The city of Spokane blames "staff transitions" for leaving its positions unfilled.

On the county's part, the backlog was intentional. County commissioners wanted to send a message, an expression of their displeasure. Their intended target: Kristen Griffin, then the city's Historic Preservation Officer who provided support to the Landmarks Commission. County commissioners have complained about everything from Griffin's performance, to the lack of historic preservation outreach to unincorporated areas, to a case involving a small farmhouse.

Griffin, who quit in February amid frustration, says the county never told her the delay was a pointed message or attempted to communicate its meaning at all.

City Council President Ben Stuckart says the county's purposeful foot-dragging "to teach a lesson is really an example of bad government," and Councilman Jon Snyder calls the tactics a "ridiculous politicizing of the historic preservation process."

"There are a lot of folks that are really mad that they tried to manipulate this process," Snyder adds.

It wasn't the first blow to historic preservation. In 2012, the county slashed its funding of the Spokane Historic Preservation Office from a peak of $40,000 to only $5,000 — a number the city of Spokane complains serves as more of an accounting headache than a useful sum. The city contributes $155,000.

By March, the gears at the county and city were moving again, and today the open slots have been filled. While the city and county are moving toward restoring funding to the Historic Preservation Office, the tactics the county used against the Landmarks Commission spotlights an ongoing divide between the two governments.

"It speaks to the underlying tension," Stuckart says.

Farmhouse fracas

A toy dump truck, celebrating the county's success in attracting a Caterpillar manufacturing plant, is parked on a shelf in County Commissioner Al French's office. It's a coup that French is particularly proud of. A former developer and architect, French has fought intensely to attract developers and manufacturers to the region and protect their interests.

Case in point: The city council recently raised French's ire with an ordinance restricting the expansion of certain utilities to developments in areas still open to legal challenges. Despite Mayor Condon vetoing the ordinance, French drew on hardball tactics, firing off a 36-point records request, requiring councilmembers to cite evidence for their arguments and even asking the city to send over Snyder's oath of office.

Last year, the Landmarks Commission became part of another land-use fight. The Sarsfield farmhouse in the West Plains, constructed in the Craftsman style in 1905, became a flashpoint when WEMCO, a heavy equipment manufacturer, wanted to build next door.

That's when the Landmarks Commission weighed in. In June of 2013, it looked at evidence that the WEMCO facility's construction and presence could hurt the farmhouse. Griffin and the Landmarks Commission repeatedly called for additional environmental review, as required by terms of a 2002 rezone, before development.

Ultimately, Griffin says, the warehouse was approved without the review she wanted. The county commissioners, however, remained unhappy with Griffin's involvement.

"Part of our frustration, last year, was we felt that [Griffin] was advocating for an outcome as opposed to advocating for a process," French said in a meeting with city Planning Director Scott Chesney in February. "And that then put the department in a position contrary to the interests of the county. As Commissioner [Todd] Mielke indicated, we want to make sure everybody is rowing in the same direction."

In French's eyes, it was a conflict of philosophies. A county focused on property rights on one side. A city government that believes historic preservation projects can impact neighboring properties on the other. "You cannot rob a neighbor's underlying rights because you've chosen to engage in historic preservation activity," French said.

But Landmarks Commission Chair Lynn Mandyke points to the county's code, which specifically gives the commission authority to comment on assessments of "historic resources or adjacent properties."

Failure to communicate

French says the farmhouse was far from the only point of contention. On one hand, he doesn't believe that historic landmarks should impede adjacent properties. On the other, he would like to see more county properties on the historic register. The Landmarks Commission has been too concentrated on the city, he says, without enough outreach or education to the unincorporated areas. As a result, most properties added to the register have been within the city's borders.

He wasn't happy with Griffin's leadership, period.

"We weren't getting updated on the efforts," French says. "She would come to us once a year, and that presentation was to ask for more money."

Griffin disputes that her presentations were about funding, but says that when the commissioners complained about the Landmarks Commission's narrow results, she took it to heart. She added new workshops, for example, to help barns countywide get on the historic register.

French says he didn't raise any of his problems with Griffin to her superiors. Instead, he tried to get Griffin's attention by stalling Landmarks Commission applications. "We were frustrated because the communication had broken down," French says. "We weren't going to start processing any applications until we had established that communication."

But Griffin says no one told her why the applications weren't being approved. French says county staff communicated with city staff, but he wasn't part of the conversation. Griffin says she asked county clerical staff about the delay, but never got an explanation.

"The first that I heard that this was an effort to deliver a message was in the Spokesman-Review [on Feb. 13]," Griffin says. "A better way to have delivered a message would have been to convey something to me directly."

If the county wanted Griffin gone, they got it. She resigned in February, taking a new job on Whidbey Island.

Griffin says it was difficult to leave, but she'd hit a low point. Her department had been absorbed into the city's Department of Building and Planning. She was saddled with more work and given fewer resources and less support. The county's blocking of Landmarks Commission applications made her morale even worse.

"I never heard a single complaint until I saw it in the paper," Stuckart says of Griffin's work. "If there are issues, we can all get together to talk about them."

Yet with Griffin gone, and the city searching for her replacement, French is happy with the direction of historic preservation. He praises Chesney, the city planning director, and the interim historic preservation officer. French says the county is willing to "ramp up its funding" as long as the new officer is willing to look at historic preservation on a "true regional basis."

On Monday, Chesney sent the county a memorandum of understanding, proposing the county increase its investment in the Historic Preservation Office sixfold to $30,000.

As the city and county plan to kick off talks on May 12 over regional planning and revenue sharing, French says he's optimistic.

"We are going to do, through this joint planning effort, what I think the city and county have always talked about doing for 13 years," he says. ♦


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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...