By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Discussions about rezoning the area known as “the cow pasture” in the heart of Keizer ground to a standstill at the city council meeting Monday, June 20.

While area residents opposing the proposal to allow 112 apartments on the site – between Chemawa Road Northeast and Dearborn Avenue Northeast on the west side of Verda Lane Northeast – took up much of the meeting, it was a question regarding the potential historical significance of the home already on the property that primarily resulted in the public hearing on the matter being extended until late August.

And, without the much-maligned roundabout being constructed just a few hundred yards away, there’s a good chance the issue might never have arisen at all.

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A house with history

Exactly when the house on the property was built is something of a mystery in and of itself.

Depending on the source, estimates range between 1840 and 1901. However, it is indisputably the oldest structure of its type in city limits according to a report filed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) in 2014.

What is less obscure is the history of ownership. The farmstead on which the property sits was part of a donation land claim by John M. Pugh. The Pugh family was one of the first families to arrive in what would become Keizer.

The Pughs landed in Scio after completing the Oregon Trail in 1845, and moved to the Keizer area in 1850. The Pugh family ended up in possession of four donation land claims and around the Chemawa-Verda-Dearborn corridor. John was a son of the family patriarch and took possession of the land in question likely due its ability to withstand flooding – much of the property is located on a rising incline.

By 1884, census reports suggest John Pugh was living in the “South Salem Precinct” and the home was sold to Benjamin Franklin and Mary Hall. An expert consulting on the ODOT report suggested that the home on the property most likely dates to the Hall era.

Architectural features of the home, specifically “a gable-front-and-wing” in the classical revival style, led to the belief that it couldn’t predate 1850 and likely not 1860.

After some changes in ownership, William and Alwilda Savage began renting the property in 1910 or 1911 and established the Keizer View Dairy. In 1914, the Savages purchased the property. The Savages moved on by 1943 and began renting the property to Joseph and Rosalie Herber, who purchased the property in 1948. The Herbers sold off their dairy stock and focused on vegetables and beef cattle. Rosalie lived on the property until her death in 2007.

Triggering an investigation

Hearings to rezone the Herber property, to allow apartments to be built there, would likely have come and gone in the usual way if not for a public records request from Keizer resident Eamon Bishop inquiring about the ODOT report.

“That request directed our attention and effort specifically to the paper trail. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have been more attune to the underlying issue, but it’s understandable that greater attention was given to the nasty implications than on the nuance of related information,” said Nate Brown, Keizer community development director.

Brown said city officials only discovered the report after filing the agenda for the city council meeting and it meant the issue had to be addressed on the spot during the June 20 meeting.

ODOT had to commission the report, which was filed  with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), because federal funds were being used to install the roundabout at the intersection at Chemawa Road Northeast and Verda Lane Northeast.

“As part of that project, there is a federal law that requires agencies using federal funds – in the case the Federal Highway Administration – to figure out how the project may or may not affect historic properties,” said Ian Johnson, a historian with OPRD.

The report concluded that the roundabout construction would not impact the potentially historic home, but that the home itself might qualify for designation on the National Registry of Historic Places.

That designation comes with several requirements, the least of which are the home must be 50 years old and maintain the majority of its historic appearance, Johnson said. Other potential qualifiers include association with historic events and trends, historic persons, historic architecture or the ability to yield research (typically the latter is reserved for site of archaeological significance).

“The house in question meets the requirements of association with historical events and historical architecture and, possibly, historic persons,” Johnson said.

At this point, the ODOT report is the bare minimum required to answer the questions of  the roundabout’s impact on the property. To advance to the next stage, a more thorough study of the home’s traits and its historical significance would be needed and a series of public hearings would be held on regional and state levels.

“In this case, they did some initial investigation that found a full investigation could be done,” said Johnson, who agreed with those conclusions when he signed off on the report. “There’s still quite a bit of distance between what’s been done and what it would take for the home to be listed on the national register.”

The report also concluded that the home merited elevated significance because Keizer lacks other sites of historical significance within city limits.

A questionable future

Even with the preliminary report on the books, the road ahead is a bit murky.

“If (a redevelopment project) uses all private money, there are no restrictions on the home being torn down. If it’s all private funds on private property, they can do whatever they like within Keizer’s zoning code,” Johnson said.

The state law only applies to publicly-owned properties and the federal law applies to anything that is federally funded, permitted or owned. That’s not to say that some part of the project might return and result in a full investigation.

“If the developers were to get a federal grant or if they had to get a federal permit, such as covering a stream with a parking lot, they would have to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which would trigger a full investigation,” Johnson said.

Anyone, property owner or not, can also  apply to have the home considered for inclusion on the national registry.

“However, the owner may object and block the nomination,” Johnson said.

Moreover, there are questions about the condition of the home.

“As far as the condition, we don’t have specific evaluation information just observations from what has been seen from the doorway, such as missing flooring and plaster, and complaints from the tenants about various issues,” Brown said.

In the recent past, the property has been the subject of complaints to the city including infractions such as: burning, solid waste disposal, chicken and turkey care, parking, housing codes and illegal habitation.

Brown is meeting with the rezone petitioners to hammer out the details of how to assess the home’s historical significance, and has reached out to State Historic Preservation Office to figure out the process moving forward.