A bill (AB-568), currently in the legislature’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, would strip the power of Wisconsin towns to protect their own historic places by making compliance with local historic preservation ordinances optional for property owners. Local preservation ordinances often include some protections for historic properties through a town’s power of zoning, as opposed to the National Register of Historic Places program at the federal level, which provides no protection. Municipal zoning powers that include preservation laws have been affirmed by several decisions of the US Supreme Court.
The bill adds an “owner consent” provision to state law. Under the bill, Wisconsin municipalities may not designate a property as a historic landmark without the consent of the owner. Also under this bill, Wisconsin municipalities may not require or prohibit any action by an owner of a property related to preservation of the historic or aesthetic value of the property without the consent of the owner. Property owners would have to opt in to the regulatory provisions of local ordinances, and owners of already-designated properties would be able to ignore adopted standards designed to maintain the historic character of these properties. It would affect owners of individually designated properties as well as those in historic districts.
The bill’s impact on Wisconsin’s Certified Local Government program, authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act, is being evaluated. The CLG program brings federal money to Wisconsin towns to survey, identify and nominate properties to the National Register of Historic Places, which makes them eligible for state and federal Historic Tax Credit programs to encourage private investment.
The practical impact of the “owner consent” provision would be that Wisconsin towns and cities would not be able enforce their local preservation ordinances. Standards designed to maintain the character of historic properties and districts would be unenforceable. Municipal planning staff would find themselves working to delist historic places, take down historical markers, and rewrite their preservation ordinances. Tourism brochures and websites would need to be revised as historic places drop off the lists. Wisconsin’s heritage sites and buildings would no longer have regulatory protections.
Well-regulated historic landmarks and districts have advantages to Wisconsin towns and cities. They tend to have more stable, and often higher, property values, they contribute to a community’s character and identity, and in many towns they are a key attraction for heritage tourism. If property owners in Wisconsin’s local historic districts are able to opt out of local zoning regulation, the benefits of those districts would dissolve as owners opted out. The character of historic districts would be subject to passing, individual tastes, rather than a cohesive set of standards. Demolitions of historic buildings would likely increase statewide as owners opt to ignore inconvenient local regulation.
The provisions in this bill threaten the foundational purpose of historic preservation ordinances in Wisconsin communities like Cedarburg, Stevens Point, Mineral Point, Sister Bay, and Superior. They undermine the ability of Wisconsin communities to identify those places that are important to them, and to protect their integrity for future generations. Historic places in Wisconsin – their condition and their very existence - would be subject to the mercy of passing owners, no matter how brief their stewardship.