Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Conducting a Design Review

Chapter 9: Preservation Commission Design Review, Page 1 of 6

Design Review | HPC Training | Wisconsin Historical Society

The design review process should be made as smooth and easy as possible for both applicants and commission members. This can be achieved by establishing clear and consistent procedures and following a user-friendly approach throughout each phase of the process.

Design guidelines that illustrate appropriate rehabilitation through photographs or drawings are especially helpful for property owners and commissions as they conduct their review.

Design Review Steps

A typical design review follows these steps:

  1. The property owner meets with the commission staff for preliminary discussion of the proposed project and to determine if a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) is required.
  2. The property owner determines if the project requires a building permit and/or compliance with other regulations.
  3. The property owner files an application for a COA.
  4. The commission reviews the application, checks it for accuracy and completeness, and becomes informed about the project.
  5. A public meeting is held at which the commission members and the applicant discuss the project, ask questions, and clarify issues.
  6. Commission members reach a decision regarding the COA and announce their decision at the meeting.

Commission Decisions

When reviewing a COA application, the commission may reach one of these three decisions: 

  • The commission may approve and issue the COA, and the applicant may go forth with the project and complete it in conformance with the COA.
  • The commission may deny the COA, and the applicant can appeal the decision to a local governing body.
  • When either approving or denying a COA, the commission must use the language as stated in Wisconsin Act 317 which was passed in 2017.  This Act states that the commission "shall permit an owner to use materials that are similar in design, color, scale, architectural appearance, and other visual qualities."
  • The commission may choose to table the COA request pending modification of the project.

Design Review Objectives

Commissions should strive to meet these review objectives:

Conduct an Efficient and Timely Review
An efficient review process will minimize frustration so the process is not perceived as unnecessarily burdensome. Commission and staff members can aid the review process by making sure applicants have all the necessary documentation before a project is discussed at a public meeting. Commissions with qualified staff can also streamline the review process by keeping a list of minor projects that don't require a full commission review. Minor projects could include approval of paint colors, repair or replacement of details or siding in-kind, replacement of non-historic roof materials, and fencing in accordance with guidelines. This streamlined approach will minimize delays to the applicants and reduce the work load of the commission.
Provide Clear Procedures, Policies, and Information
The review process should be based on a set of written procedures that are followed throughout all steps of the process, especially in meetings. Established timelines and schedules for meetings, filing deadlines, etc., will make the process more efficient and help to ensure that everyone receives equal treatment. The commission should strive to educate the public about design guidelines and the review process and develop good relationships with property owners and residents. This can be accomplished through workshops, information meetings, brochures, or simply becoming involved in the community and getting to know its residents. Guidelines should be easily accessible, available, and understandable to alleviate misconceptions and encourage compliance.
Be Informed and Prepared
Commission members should become familiar with a proposed project before it is discussed at a commission meeting. Members should review the application and any supporting material, and if possible, visit the site of the proposed project to understand the surrounding area. Commission members should be knowledgeable of common architectural, preservation, and construction terms, be familiar with architectural drawings, and know the standards and criteria set forth in the accepted design guidelines.
Be Consistent and Fair
The written procedures of the review process should be followed at all times. Applicants must be treated equally and consistently with decisions based upon the established guidelines. Commission members must be consistent in their decision making and not allow personal relationships, political clout, or business interests to sway their evaluations. If the commission approves or denies a particular treatment, such as the application of synthetic siding, to one homeowner, it should reach the same decision for a similar request by a different property owner unless clear differences between the projects require different treatments. Commission members need to be aware of  precedents set by the commission in the past and be consistent with their decisions.
Base Decisions on Accepted Design Guidelines
Commission members must base their decisions on specific criteria in the written design guidelines. They should not allow personal preferences regarding architectural styles, aesthetics, or design elements to influence their decisions. A plan for a large addition to a home might be an interesting and pleasing design but still not meet the criteria of the design guidelines or be appropriate for a particular neighborhood. Commission members should also refrain from designing projects for applicants. While they may make some suggestions, their role is to review, not design, projects.
Encourage Open Communications and Courtesy
Clear communication between commission members, applicants, and supporting staff throughout every step of the review process will help to ensure understanding among all parties. Dialogue between commission members and applicants, especially during public meetings, should be encouraged. During discussion of the project, commission members should listen carefully to the applicant and ask for clarification when they don’t understand something. Once a decision has been reached, the commission should clearly explain the decision and the reasoning behind it. All applicants should be treated with courtesy regardless of their behavior or demeanor. Commission members should be conscious of their tone, body language, and facial expressions as well as their words, and strive to give everyone equitable treatment.