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Knapp House

The historic Knapp House on East Gilman Street is located in the Mansion Hill neighborhood. A proposed bill would require a municipality to get the consent of owners before giving a landmark status to properties. 

A Republican-sponsored bill that would require communities to get the consent of a property's owners before designating landmark status has Madison historic preservationists worried it could hobble efforts to protect buildings and historic districts.

Under the bill sponsored by Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, a municipality could not establish a historic district without the consent of at least half of the owners in the proposed area.

Craig said the bill upholds the rights of property owners and implements a clear process that ensures property owners have a say in the historic designation process.

“Ultimately, I believe the decision to be in a historic district and how you use one’s property lies with the property owner,” Craig said.

Currently, local landmarks commissions oversee historic designations in a process that includes public hearings. Property owners can also appeal decisions to their town board, county board or city council.

Tension between historic preservationists and property owners played out during a public hearing of the Committee on Insurance, Financial Services, Constitution and Federalism at the Capitol in Madison Wednesday.

Opponents of the bill worry it would hurt the city’s ability to preserve historic buildings and areas in the future. Fred Mohs, owner and manager of multiple properties in Madison’s historic Mansion Hill neighborhood, said cities should look forward into their history and maintain the ability to designate structures as historic.

While owners of historic homes may have more restrictions and higher building standards to uphold, Mohs said the benefits of preserving history speak for themselves.

“This is part of the regulation of modern life, and it’s part of the sustainability of neighborhoods,” Mohs said.

Kurt Stege, president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, said the bill could hurt efforts in Madison to designate as landmarks the Wuennenberg-Clarenbach House, 123 W. Gilman St., and the Gay Building, 14-16 N. Carroll St.

“A community has to have input,” Stege said.

The Wisconsin Historical Society is also opposed to the bill, arguing it diminishes local control of historic properties and favors large property owners.

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Property owners and managers speaking in favor of the legislation said it is unfair for someone else to decide the historic status of their property, especially when that label comes with greater restrictions and higher standards for the property.

Bob Welch, a former Republican state representative representing the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, explained that he is concerned when a community uses a historic designation to stop a development process instead of preserving history.

Alyssa Hillenbrand-Best, director of Madison-based Steve Brown Apartments, emphasized that the bill does not prevent historic landmarking or creating historic district but balances the process to give property owners more input.

“This is about my rights as a property owner,” Hillenbrand-Best said. “We need to remember that property owners are shouldering the burden of responsibility for caring and maintaining and financing our properties and as such, we should have a say.”

However, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, argued that the proposed bill sways too far on the side of the property owner who would have the power to shut down discussion of giving landmark status to an individual property.

“This bill gives you an absolute veto,” Risser said, speaking to Hillenbrand-Best. “You’re not giving the public a say.”

A previous bill introduced in December included a provision that would have given property owners the authority to replace original building materials on historic structures with similar-looking materials.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.