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First Settlement Historic District

GOP state lawmakers have revised a bill that critics said would cripple local preservation ordinances, like one serving Madison’s First Settlement Historic District. 

State GOP lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would enhance the rights of landlords and property owners, especially in the area of historic preservation.

The new version would still make property owner consent part of future landmark and historic district designations but no longer affect how existing designations are governed by local ordinances.It would let cities continue to have systematic building inspections and provide more information on eviction notices.

The initial legislation proposed by Rep. Rob Brooks, R-Saukville, and Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, has been supported by landlord and real estate organizations, but many elements were strongly challenged by municipal leaders, fire officials and historic preservationists across the state.

Critics said it would ban important routine apartment building inspection and registration programs, make it too easy for landlords to evict tenants, and devastate historic preservation programs in Madison and across Wisconsin.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities voiced opposition because it preempts local rule.

After hearings, the lawmakers promised changes that have now been laid out in a substitute to the bill, AB 568.

“They have responded to our most important requests,” said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. “We have shifted our position from opposition to neutral.”

The league, Witynski stressed, is still combing over details of the revision.

Madison city attorney Michael May said he is still analyzing the changes. “Some of the worst things are gone,” he said. “It still may be a pretty bad bill.”

It’s unclear how the changes will be broadly received. The sponsors don’t anticipate further hearings and expect committee decisions could be made later this month with floor action in February.

The biggest changes come in the area of historic preservation.

“We heard from people across the state that historic preservation is important to them,” said Lasee spokesman Lars Fiorio. “They thought the legislation went a bit too far in knee-capping local government.”

The original bill would have prohibited the designation of a new landmark without the property owner’s permission and, critics argued, effectively undermined the power of local ordinances to regulate changes to designated landmarks or buildings in historic districts without property owner consent.

The amended bill would require municipalities to notify owners on proposals to designate landmarks or historic districts and provide a form by which the owner could vote for or against the designation or inclusion within 60 days.

An owner could block a landmark designation while a historic district designation would require approval from the owners of two-thirds of principal structures.

The revision eliminates language that critics felt would gut municipal authority to run historic preservation programs.

Sam Breidenbach, president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, said that while the new version is “definitely an improvement,” the potential for unintended consequences still remains. “There’s some really fundamental problems.”

The initial bill had significant changes for tenant-landlord law, including:

  • Banning municipalities from establishing apartment inspection programs, with inspections based on tenant complaints.
  • Banning municipalities from registering, certifying or licensing landlords unless uniformly applied to properties, including owner-occupied properties.
  • Letting landlords more quickly evict a tenant.

The revision allows building inspections based on complaints by any person and regularly scheduled inspections, which should satisfy municipalities, Witynski said.

“That’s a positive for us,” Madison building inspector George Hank said. “I’m fairly pleased with the way they handled it.”

The amended proposal lets municipalities register landlord information including a name, contact, address and phone number, sponsors said.

It also provides more information on eviction notices, which would have to include the basis of the eviction, description of any alleged criminal activity and contacts for assistance.

The tenant-landlord revisions don’t go far enough, especially in the area of evictions, said Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center.

She said the bill is still too broad and would give landlords the ability to evict for minor offenses without the involvement of law enforcement or arrest.

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