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Archaeological Sites Property Tax Exemption Program

Wis. Stats. 70.11(13m) provides a property tax exemption for owners of archaeological sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places or the State Register of Historic Places. The intent of the legislation is to provide an incentive for landowners to protect significant archaeological sites on their lands. To obtain the tax exemption, the landowner must agree to place a permanent protective covenant on the site.

Through this program you have the opportunity to receive a tax exemption for the archaeological site area and help the State of Wisconsin preserve our archaeological heritage. The tax exemption program makes you, the landowner, a steward of Wisconsin's past. It does not discourage all uses of the site. Instead, it encourages land use planning to avoid disturbing the site area. The covenant contains a legal description of the area that is to be exempted from property taxes and defines landowner and Wisconsin Historical Society obligations in the protection of that area.

Below are frequently asked questions regarding archaeological sites and tax exemptions. If you have further questions, or are interested in joining the program, please contact State Archaeologist John Broihahn.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who can receive a property tax exemption?

There are specific requirements that must be met before owners of archaeological sites can receive a property tax exemption. First, the site must be listed in the State Register of Historic Places or the National Register of Historic Places. Second, the landowner must enter into a permanent covenant with the Society.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has limited funds to evaluate sites not currently listed in the state or national registers. Evaluation will often necessitate small scale test excavation and mapping. Society staff will then determine if the site is potentially eligible for listing. If considered eligible, the site must then be formally nominated to the state or national registers. This process can take up to one year to complete. Qualified archaeological consultants can also be contracted to perform site evaluation and nomination. A list of consultants is available from the Office of the State Archaeologist.

What do I have to do?

Contact John Broihahn, the State Archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society. If the site is already listed in the state or national registers and retains its archaeological integrity, the owner and the Society may negotiate a protective covenant for the site. Once the covenant is signed by both the owner and the Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Society will file the covenant with the County Register of Deeds. The Society will then notify the local tax assessor that the site should be removed from the tax rolls. If the archaeological site is not in the state or national registers, Office of the State Archaeologist staff will schedule an investigation of the site or provide a list of consultants qualified to do this work.

How restrictive is the covenant?

Only activities that involve substantial ground disturbance are restricted. If an owner wants to engage in activities that affect the integrity of the archaeological site, such as digging, bulldozing, or plowing, the owner must notify the Wisconsin Historical Society in writing of the proposed activities. The Society will then respond in writing to this request within 30 days, either approving or refusing to allow the activities. In the event of a refusal, the Society will state the reasons for the refusal. You may request a sample covenant which lists restrictions that would be placed on the land.

Normal maintenance of the property and recreational activities are allowed. Other activities may be allowed on a case by case basis, upon written request by the owner. These can include activities involving minor ground disturbance, such as planting trees, digging a new well, or putting up a fence, if Wisconsin Historical Society staff are allowed to monitor the work or conduct limited test excavations in the area to be disturbed. State Historical Society staff will also work with an owner in planning the location of a proposed development in order to minimize the disturbance to the archaeological site.

Are there any costs?

Possibly. If the site is not already listed and the owner wishes to have the site evaluated sooner than the Wisconsin Historical Society staff schedule allows, the owner may have to hire a private consultant. If the site only covers a portion of a lot, a survey, performed by a registered land surveyor, may also be needed to define the site area before a covenant can be signed. If so, the landowner will have to hire a land surveyor to perform the task. There are no other costs to the landowner.

How much is the tax exemption?

The actual amount depends on a number of factors, including the amount of land listed in the State Register of Historic Places or the National Register of Historic Places and, most importantly, the value of the land and the local tax rate. In some instances, the property tax exemption can lead to a substantial savings. Only the land is tax exempt. Any improvements to the land—for example, a house—are still taxable.

Does the covenant transfer if the land is sold?

Yes. The covenant is attached to the deed, and it transfers with the deed. The new owners are then bound by the terms of the existing covenant.

How can an owner amend the covenant?

Changes to the covenant must be made by mutual consent of the owner and the Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. To do this, the owner must inform the Director in writing of the proposed changes. If the Director of the Society agrees to the changes, a new covenant would be filed with the County Register of Deeds.

Can an owner be released from the covenant?

It is the Society's intention only to end covenants under extraordinary circumstances, such as when there is no archaeological site left to protect.

Will the covenant affect property values?

It depends on the intended use of the land in question. To answer this question, owners are encouraged to have the covenant reviewed by a lawyer or a real estate assessor before signing the document.

When will I receive the tax exemption?

Under state law (Wis. Stats. 70.10), properties are assessed based on their status as of the close of January 1 of each year. A covenant signed between January 2 and December 31 of 1998, will not apply to the 1998 taxes but rather will begin in 1999.

Will the Wisconsin Historical Society or other archaeologists want to excavate at our site?

The purpose of the program is to preserve archaeological sites for future generations. Small scale excavations may be necessary to determine whether or not the site qualifies for the program, or to determine the boundaries of the site for the covenant. After the covenant is in place, the Wisconsin Historical Society cannot excavate at the site without permission of the landowner. If other archaeologists want to excavate at the site, approval from both the landowner and the Society would be needed.

Who should I contact?

For more information on current program policies and procedures, please contact the Office of the State Archaeologist, Division of Historic Preservation, Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State St, Madison, WI 53706. Contact us by phone at 608-264-6496.


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