Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Appeals Process and Enforcement

Chapter 7: Preservation Commission Processes, Page 3 of 3

Appeals Process and Enforcement | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

Each commission should establish procedures for appeals to its decisions and the enforcement of its decisions. These procedures, and the consequences of not complying with a commission's ruling, should be detailed in the community's historic preservation ordinance as well as the design guidelines.


Typically, appeals will be made to the local governing administrative body, such as the city or town council or to local courts. If the commission has kept good records and has been conscientious about clearly stating how it reached its decision, it will be in a good position for the appeal. Again, decisions should be based on facts and evidence, and be consistent with adopted procedures or guidelines.

Enforcement Measures

The enforcement of decisions is an unpleasant, but necessary, responsibility of commissions. When a property owner deviates from a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), he or she is in violation. Work undertaken contrary to an original approval in a COA or beyond the scope of the COA requires further approval from the commission or its staff. If a violation occurs, these measures are often taken:

  1. The building inspector issues a stop work order. If the work does not meet the design guidelines, the commission may require that the work be redone.
  2. If the property owner does not respond to the stop work order, the building inspector may issue a citation for violating the order. The owner will be given deadlines for responding.
  3. If the property owner still does not respond, the building inspector may issue a citation to appear in court. Any work that deviates from the COA without approval is considered a violation. Penalties and fines will be applied, with each day of continuing violation constituting a separate offense.

It is of the utmost importance that the commission has a good working relationship with the building inspector's office and communicates well with its staff. The building inspector needs to be fully aware of the commission's policies and its enforcement regulations. It is essential that the building inspector's office and other government agencies take violations to the historic preservation ordinance seriously.

Ensuring Success with Enforcement Actions

Communication and good relationships are the keys to enforcement of commission decisions. Much of how enforcement plays out will depend on the image and perception that the community and local government have of historic preservation and the commission. If local officials value preservation and the work of the commission, or at least view it in a positive light, the commission will receive more cooperation with enforcement from the agencies involved. If they are unaware of what the commission does or have had little positive connections with the commission, they will be less likely to recognize its importance. Therefore, it is important for the commission to maintain good relationships with other governmental agencies and departments by:

  • Making sure they are familiar with the community's preservation ordinance, the role of the commission, and its policies and procedures; and
  • Keeping them informed of the commission's activities (encourage them to attend commission meetings and send them copies of minutes, press releases, and other information).

In turn, commission members should also keep abreast of the activities of city hall and attend meetings of the city council at least once a year. The mayor should be asked to appoint a liaison from the city council to the commission. Such a liaison would increase communication between the commission and city council and keep everyone apprised as to concerns and issues. If an issue arises on which the elected officials or other agencies do not agree, the commission should make its recommendation or decision according to the commission's duties as outlined in the ordinance. Elected officials can then act on the recommendation or reject it. Working outside the governmental process or using inflammatory language or threats to elected officials often backfires and is counter productive.

It is also important to extend this proactive approach to the community at large. Advocacy, education, and public relations are often the best enforcement tools and are essential to compliance with the local preservation ordinance. The commission needs to have a good relationship with residents and owners in local districts. The commission should strive to have a good image, to be known throughout the community, and to be positive. A commission can take a proactive approach by doing the following:

  • Encourage public attendance and participation in commission meetings.
  • Launch a long-range education and advocacy campaign to enhance the community's understanding and value of historic preservation. 
  • Ask for community input when developing preservation plans and design guidelines.
  • Welcome newcomers and provide them with information about the district, design guidelines, and the value of owning a historic home.

Commissions need to work with local leaders to recognize that violations of commission decisions are similar to other citywide nuisance laws such as health violations, leash laws, and parking laws. Reasonable but significant fines should be applied so owners respond quickly. In some communities, such as New Orleans, the fines for violating a stop work order can be as much as $500 per day. Other communities have much smaller fines, such as $50 per day. Each community should review its enforcement guidelines to see if they have worked and are perceived as reasonable but also with some teeth.

Enforcement ultimately comes back to the original decision of the commission, so the commission needs to make thoughtful, impartial decisions that are based on established criteria and procedures. If a commission decision is challenged, the courts will be more accepting of the commission's judgment if it followed established rules and procedures. If compliance with COAs is a repetitive problem, the commission should review its ordinance and guidelines.