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Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Designating Landmarks and Creating Historic Districts

Chapter 5: Preservation Commission Operations, Page 4 of 6

Designating Landmarks and Creating Historic Districts | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

A historic preservation commission has two key responsibilities:

  • Designate (or recommend the designation of) properties as local landmarks
  • Create local historic districts

A property receives a landmark distinction because of its importance to the community based on its historical, architectural, archaeological, engineering, or cultural significance. A historic district is a geographically defined area in a community that contains historic sites, structures, or buildings. 

Designating a Landmark Property

Prior to designating a property, the commission must first have in place specific procedures and processes for nominating properties and established criteria by which to judge the nomination. Many of these procedures and processes will be set forth in the community's historic preservation ordinance. However, the commission will likely expand upon these basic guidelines and create additional materials to provide further guidance. Typically, communities use criteria similar to that used in nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.

Citizens as well as commission members should be able to nominate properties. To be fair and impartial, the nomination process needs to be fully open to the public. Public hearings on the nominations should be scheduled, and owners should be notified in a timely fashion. The commission should only proceed with individual designation if the property owner approves or if a majority of property owners approve within a proposed historic district.

In 2015, Wisconsin Act 176 was passed which requires that all decisions of the commission have an appeal process for the property owner.  These appeals typically go before the City Council, Town Board or County Board depending on which jurisdiction is covered by the ordinance.

Creating a Historic District

While National Register criteria is a good place to start, a commission will want to consider its community's unique character and needs when creating criteria for its local historic districts. Often the criteria for local districts will be more lenient than National Register district criteria, which enables more properties to be included and provides a wider amount of protection to historic resources.

When creating a historic district, it is important to get a head start on public education and support on the issue. Too often, commissions conduct their planning process in an isolated fashion and address the public only when they are about to execute a project. In the meantime, neighborhood rumor mills have been hard at work churning out misinformation about what is going to happen in their area:

  • "They'll tell us what colors we have to paint our houses."
  • "You won't be able to put on that addition you were planning."
  • "Our taxes will go up and our property values will go down."

As a result of these rumors, owners may be convinced that their property rights are being violated, and fear and anger may rule the day.

To avoid this situation, it is imperative that the commission, along with any local preservation organization, embark on an educational and advocacy campaign well in advance of initiating a district designation. Here are some ideas:

  • Hold public meetings and workshops to inform owners and residents what living in a historic district entails and show them the value of preserving their neighborhoods.
  • Give them facts and details about the positive economic benefits of historic preservation using examples from other areas.
  • Show them that they have a vested interest in preserving their neighborhoods.
  • Develop good public relations strategies. Have positive articles in the local press, speak at local club and organization meetings, develop a positive slogan or motto and use it extensively.
  • Communicate with public officials to keep them informed of the benefits of historic preservation and educate them about the role preservation can play in the community.