Madison Updates 1971 Landmarks Ordinance

The city of Madison has adopted a revised historic preservation ordinance after several years of review by the city's Landmarks Commission and a committee of alders. A full review of the ordinance was undertaken by the Landmarks Commission in 2011 after a high-profile and controversial redevelopment project caused bitter negotiations and competing interpretations of the ordinance as it move through the approval process. Then, in 2014, another development proposal in the Mansion Hill Historic District, the state's first locally-designated historic district, was met with stiff opposition from neighborhood residents who saw the redevelopment of a dilapidated house as a reward for demolition-by-neglect. These proposals revealed weaknesses in the language of the 1971 ordinance, and city officials pressed for a full review of the ordinance.

A new residential development being built (2014) in the Langdon Street Historic District.

A new residential development being built (2014) in the Langdon Street Historic District.

The 4-year review process came to fruition this week as Madison's 20-member Common Council unanimously adopted a revised ordinance. Supporters of the new ordinance registering and testifying at the meeting included representatives from the preservation community, and the development community. They unanimously praised the review committee, city staff, and the process. 

The biggest change to the ordinance was the adoption of maintenance standards for designated properties. The new ordinance creates a legal obligation on property owners to properly maintain historic properties. It defines demolition-by-neglect and provides significant penalties for violating the ordinance.

The key revisions to the ordinance include:

  • Clarifying the process destination and recession of Landmark status

  • Augmented the list of standards that the Landmarks Commission should consider including hen designating a new historic district.

  • Adding definitions for several key terms used in regulating alterations and new construction in historic districts

  • Redefined what relates visually to designated historic properties for use in evaluating new construction

  • Clarifying the provision that allows appeals of a Landmarks Commission decision, while maintaining the 2/3 super-majority required to overrule the Commission. 

  • Clarifying the  circumstances under which owners can apply for a variance from the ordinance standards. 

Overall, the new ordinance strikes an appropriate balance between the city's interests in conserving historic cultural resources, and in re-densification and redevelopment. 

There will be a second phase of the revisions that will review the standards in each of Madison's five historic districts designated under the ordinance.