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Keep historical preservation separate

The Medford City Council is considering a proposal to merge two city commissions. While the stated reason for the move is a legitimate concern, the remedy might cause more problems than it solves.

The two entities in question are the Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission and the Site Plan and Architectural Commission, known as the SPAC.

The Historic Preservation panel consists of seven members appointed by the City Council to four-year terms. City officials say resignations have often left the commission without a quorum and unable to conduct business.

That's a legitimate concern — as is the overall demand on city councilors' time. In addition to serving on the Budget Committee and the Urban Renewal Agency board and budget committee, each council member also serves as a liaison to several other committees and commissions. Some council members serve on seven or eight. That's a lot to ask of unpaid elected officials. For that matter, the volunteers who serve on the committees and commissions put in their share of time as well.

It makes sense to try to lessen those demands by streamlining the commission structure, perhaps by consolidating some bodies. But we agree with those who say Historic Preservation and Site Plan and Architectural are not a good fit.

The Site Plan commission is responsible for reviewing new development and making recommendations to city planning staff and councilors about parking, landscaping and other elements of new construction. The Historic Preservation panel is concerned with making sure historic properties are maintained and protected.

A historic preservation specialist likely wouldn't have much interest in discussing how many shrubs should be planted around the parking lot of a new commercial development, and SPAC members likewise might nod off when discussion turned to whether the cornices on a 150-year-old building should be restored.

Historic preservation advocates who have served on the commission argue forcefully that it should remain separate. But that doesn't solve the problem of too few members willing to serve.

One potential solution would be a code amendment to reduce the number of members and therefor the size of the quorum required to conduct business. There is no particular reason why the commission could not operate effectively with five members instead of seven.

Those advocates who want to see the commission continue could step up as well, by recruiting more members from the community to fill the vacant seats. If historic preservation is important to city residents, it should be possible to find seven — or five — willing volunteers in a city of 75,000 people.