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Developing a Historic Preservation Ordinance | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Historic Preservation Ordinances

Chapter 4: Starting a Preservation Commission, Page 1 of 5

Developing a Historic Preservation Ordinance | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1994, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a law requiring cities and villages in which properties on the State Register or National Register of Historic Places are located to create draft historic preservation ordinances. As a result of this legislation, there are now approximately 170 communities throughout Wisconsin that have a local historic preservation ordinance.

To find out whether or not your community has a historic preservation ordinance and/or an active historic preservation commission, review our list of Historic Preservation Commissions in Wisconsin or contact your local town council or local planning commission.

Purpose of a Historic Preservation Ordinance

A historic preservation ordinance enables a community to protect its sense of place, maintain and revitalize its downtown and older neighborhoods, increase community pride, and reinforce overall economic development. In a community that does not have a historic preservation ordinance, individuals and/or private non-profit organizations may wish to approach their elected officials to create one. Proponents should:

  • Discuss how the lack of an ordinance has affected the appearance and heritage of the community
  • Explain how the protections of an ordinance would benefit property values, stimulate investment, and promote tourism
  • Gather data from other successful communities in the state to illustrate the benefits of ordinance implementation

A preservation ordinance should reflect the preservation needs and goals of its community:

  • Is there an existing historic district?
  • Is there a need to create new historic districts?
  • What are the threats to local historic resources — growth, neglect, development?

A committee or task force of representatives will need to determine the preservation goals and objectives of the community and set priorities. Public input and support is important so that the concerns and issues of citizens are recognized and addressed. The task force members should reflect a wide range of individuals in the community. An effort should be made to educate the public and build support by holding public meetings or workshops, distributing informative flyers, developing presentations, or other methods. Targeted groups should include elected officials, members of the media, the business community, property owners and neighborhood organizations, local architects and designers, realtors, civic clubs, and educational leaders.

Considerations for Developing a Commission

Once a preservation ordinance is enacted, the community's chief elected official may appoint members to a historic preservation commission. Approximately half of the 170 Wisconsin communities with a historic preservation ordinance also have a preservation commission. A community may choose to empower an existing local governing board with the duties of a commission in lieu of establishing a body of preservation or development-focused community members. This might be a good alternative for smaller communities where the number of interested and qualified potential members is limited.

Communities must have a commission in place in order to become a Certified Local Government (CLG). The CLG program was enacted as part of the National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1980 and was established in Wisconsin to encourage and assist local government-initiated historic preservation. Once certified, a local government is eligible for matching sub-grants from the federal Historic Preservation Fund for specific CLG activities. Commissions within CLG communities also play a larger role in reviewing National Register of Historic Places nominations within their communities' boundaries and are eligible to authorize the use of the Wisconsin Historic Building Code for locally designated historic buildings.

Interested parties and individuals, including residents, property owners, and preservation groups, should work with local government officials to determine how the commission will function. It might prove helpful to review ordinances of other communities similar to your own and to seek advice from the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions (WAHPC) and the Wisconsin Historical Society's State Historic Preservation Office.

The historic preservation commission serves as a design review board. The community must also decide whether the commission will have binding authority or advisory authority. A commission with advisory authority simply makes a recommendation to property owners regarding an alteration to their historic property. This recommendation is not compulsory; it is a suggestion that considers the protection of the property's historic character. The decisions of a commission with binding authority, on the other hand, are compulsory. Property owners have a legal requirement to comply with the design review decisions of a commission with binding authority.

Procedures for Enacting a Historic Preservation Ordinance

The key procedures for enacting a historic preservation ordinance are summarized below:

  • Draw together a group of interested parties — residents, property owners, business owners, preservation group members, etc. — to serve as a task force
  • Review ordinances of other communities; seek advice from Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions (WAHPC) and/or from the Wisconsin Historical Society's State Historic Preservation Office
  • Determine the preservation goals and objectives of the community
  • Educate the public, build support for preservation, and target groups such as elected officials, the business community, neighborhood organizations, realtors, developers, and members of the media
  • Adopt a historic preservation ordinance
  • Appoint members to a historic preservation commission
  • Work with the local government to determine how the preservation commission will function