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Fate of city historic commission uncertain

Medford City Council this month will decide whether to combine a languishing Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission with the city’s Site Plan and Architectural Commission.

City officials say the duties of both commissions would still be met — and valued — while past volunteers say the two commissions have widely different priorities and should not be merged.

In August, City Council directed staff to draft code language that would combine the two volunteer groups.

Tasked with reviewing and making recommendations to city planners on projects with historical relevance, the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission, established in 1986, is composed of seven voting members appointed by the mayor and council to four-year terms.

Planning Director Matt Brinkley said recent resignations had forced the city’s hand in trying to ensure the commission's duties could still be met. Too often, he noted, the commission is without a quorum and unable to conduct business.

Brinkley said the city would discuss changing quorum requirements — a code amendment set for the hearing process could reduce the membership of the commission from seven members to five – but it still plans to discuss consolidation.

“City Council has directed staff to look at consolidating commissions, as a whole, in order to reduce the number of commissions that we have,” Brinkley said, noting that more than two dozen commissions currently require time of councilors.

“It’s up to City Council to make the decision, but staff has strongly recommended that we have very strong presence on any kind of body, whether it’s a combined commission or an advisory committee. We would want to maintain a strong presence from people who have experience with historic preservation.”

Former Planning Department employee Kathy Helmer, who recently resigned from the historic preservation commission, urged that the two commissions remain separate.

“Historic preservation is so different from SPAC. There are different professionals involved, and there is such a different function. If the responsibilities of the LHPC are put into SPAC, there’s no one who’s going to advocate for it,” Helmer worried. "I’m sorry but that would absolutely be the end of historic preservation in our city.”

Former commission member Diana Marmon, who served on the commission from 2008 to 2015, agreed.

“It’s definitely not the right move or in the interest of historic preservation in any way. The commission makes sure houses are maintained and preserved. The Site Plan and Architectural Commission focuses on new development,” Marmon said.

“It’s in conflict. I don’t know how you could even think to combine the two of them — a commission that preserves landmarks and historic properties with a site plan committee that focuses on new development.”

Ben Truwe, a local historian and former councilor, took issue with the concept, as well.

“It is my perception that the city has never seen historic preservation as an economic benefit. We are tearing down our historic buildings at an alarming rate,” Truwe said.

“Our problem is that our historic buildings don’t look historic because the downtown was economically vibrant, so they were remodeled regularly. We have to be able to see below the surface to see the significance. We have entire blocks built in the 1890s.”

Truwe said the city would do itself a huge disservice by merging the two commissions, and he voiced concern about the city's “ongoing policy of disempowering” its volunteer commissions.

One consideration in merging the two groups, Brinkley noted, would be implications for the city’s status under the Certified Local Governments program (www.oregon.gov/OPRD/HCD/SHPO/pages/clg.aspx). CLG designation requires establishment of a historic commission with membership from preservation professionals or persons working in historic preservation-related fields.

“We haven’t gotten that far down the road at looking at how it would work if they were combined. We are lucky to have some volunteers who are really passionate and who offer a lot of experience. The mayor has spoken very forcefully about the benefit of historic preservation and the need for Medford to continue to support historic preservation efforts,” Brinkley said.

“We have some great buildings here, and we really do want to preserve them, and in some cases restore and rehabilitate them. In any city or county it can be difficult to get people to volunteer. How things would work is something we’re looking into. In the meantime, we’re trying to figure out ways for the LHPC to continue doing its work with a somewhat depleted membership.”

The Planning Commission will hold a study session at noon Monday, Oct. 9, with a public hearing slated for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26.

— Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com