New State Law Tinkers with Local Historic Preservation Policies

The Pinkus-McBride commercial building anchors a corner of a six-pointed intersection in Madison, and provides a sense of the neighborhood's history while a new apartment building rises behind it.

The Pinkus-McBride commercial building anchors a corner of a six-pointed intersection in Madison, and provides a sense of the neighborhood's history while a new apartment building rises behind it.

A new state law in Wisconsin places new provisions on local historic preservation ordinances, but does not include proposed changes that would have disabled the ability of cities, towns and counties to provide long-term protection for important historic places. We wrote about the proposed Bill here

The new law requires Wisconsin municipalities (counties, cities, towns) to hold a public hearing on any proposed historic designation for an individual property or historic district, and to notify all property owners about the public hearing by paper mail. The law also provides for an appeal process, by which any property owner who is "affected by a decision of" a Historic Preservation Commission may appeal the decision to the County or Town Board or city Council, who may overturn the Commission's designation by a simple majority vote.

The law leaves intact the ability of counties and towns to designate landmarks and historic districts under powers of zoning that have been affirmed by the US Supreme Court in several cases. It does, however, require changes to some municipal preservation policies that currently require a 3/4 supermajority vote of the Board or Council to overturn a decision of the Commission. It leaves intact the ability to designate historic properties over the objection of the current owner. This was perhaps the most critical provision of the proposed bill. We argue in a previous post that historic preservation is a long game, and that allowing any owner, no matter how briefly they own the property, to opt out of local historic guidelines would lead to the rapid erosion of historic places in many Wisconsin communities.

The Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation lobbied, alongside the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, other organizations, and several town mayors, for the wholesale removal of the section of the Bill dealing with local Historic Preservation laws. We were successful to the extent that the most dramatic provisions of the bill were amended before it became law.