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Proposed state legislation would devastate historic preservation, critics say
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Proposed state legislation would devastate historic preservation, critics say

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A proposal by state Republican lawmakers to enhance property owners’ rights would devastate historic preservation efforts in Madison and across the state, critics say.

A sweeping bill by Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, and Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, would prohibit municipalities from designating properties as historic landmarks without consent of the owner. And it would ban municipalities from requiring or prohibiting any actions by owners related to preservation of the historic or aesthetic value of the property without owner consent.

The proposal wouldn’t pre-empt local historic preservation ordinances but effectively make them voluntary, Madison assistant city attorney John Strange said.

“This would basically kill historic preservation ordinances and efforts in our communities,” said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which opposes the legislation as a pre-emption of local control.

The language is part of a larger bill “designed to make it easier for landlords to provide Wisconsin residents with quality housing,” according to a co-sponsorship memo circulated by the sponsors. The legislation, AB 568, offers a series of changes to tenant-landlord law, including a ban on municipalities from establishing routine apartment inspection programs and prohibiting municipalities from licensing or registering owners or managers of residential rental properties.

The memo does not make a case for why the historic preservation changes should be made, and the sponsors could not be reached Wednesday. A spokesman for Brooks said the representative would withhold comment until after a public hearing scheduled for Thursday. The Assembly Housing and Real Estate Committee will take up the bill at 10 a.m. in Room 412 East of the state Capitol.

The proposal accounts for only a few lines in the legislation but will have a huge impact, municipal officials said.

It would preclude designation of a new landmark without the property owner’s permission, but in a greater effect, it would effectively undermine the power of local ordinances to regulate changes to designated landmarks or buildings in historic districts without property owner consent.

In Madison, for example, an owner must get a Certificate of Appropriateness from the city Landmarks Commission before making changes, Strange said. Under the proposal, an owner apparently could skip that process or reject commission recommendations for changes or even demolitions, he said.

An owner still would need building or demolition permits from city Building Inspection or the Plan Commission, but historic significance would not be part of those decisions, Strange said. The effect on designated federal landmarks or structures on the National Register of Historic Places is less clear, he said.

Madison Landmarks Commission Chairman Stuart Levitan said the proposal would undermine significant investments made in the city’s five historic districts and in other properties.

“It would be the end of all historic preservation,” Levitan said. “It would make it voluntary. I can’t believe (the sponsors) have such a lack of understanding of what it means to live in a community environment.”

Sam Breidenbach, board president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, penned a letter to Madison-area representatives voicing “steadfast opposition” to the legislation. “In Madison, historic preservation is very much tied to planning and zoning,” he said in an interview. “It’s not discretionary and arbitrary.”

In another letter, Carlen Hatala and Dean Doerrfeld of the city of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission, wrote: “This reduces local ordinances to ‘feel good’ exercises that have no ability to preserve or protect historic resources. Opting out of review of exterior renovations could hurt many historic properties and historic districts. It lessens the sense of community and commitment to neighbors when neighbors are ‘pitted’ against each other.”

John Decker, president of the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions, also wrote to lawmakers, calling the legislation “hastily drafted and poorly considered,” adding, “placing the whim of individual property owners over the public interest is an alarming prospect, and is antithetical to ordered government and local control.”

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