Government Approval for Your Historic Building Rehabilitation Project | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Government Approval for Your Historic Building Rehabilitation Project

Government Approval for Your Historic Building Rehabilitation Project | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you own property within a local historic district and plan to change your building’s exterior or construct a new building, you will need to participate in your community’s design review process. You might be able to get approval for your plans from a designated municipal staff person if your rehabilitation work is minor. But if your work is larger in scope, you will likely need approval from your historic preservation commission (HPC) or other governing body, such as the landmarks commission or historic zoning commission.

You must follow your HPC’s review process to obtain a building permit before you start work on your project. Your local HPC will publicize its procedures and regular review board meetings. If you are applying for tax credits for your project, you must pursue a separate review process that requires a different set of forms and approval.

Start the Design Approval Process

Design review is the process of obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness (CoA) and a building permit. Your HPC may have two types of approval procedures:

  • Staff approval
  • HPC review

When you need multiple reviews of your project, such as a local HPC review and a federal or state tax credit review, you should begin the approval process with the largest of the governing bodies. That means you should pursue federal or state approval first and local HPC approval second. 

Approval from a state or federal body may aid your local HPC approval, but local HPC approval will not influence your state or federal review. In fact, if your state or federal review requires modifications to your previously approved HPC review, you might need to repeat the local approval process.

Work with Your Design Review Staff

Your city’s design review staff members are probably in the planning or zoning department. These staff members oversee your city’s historic preservation ordinance and help applicants like you through the design review process. They also serve as staff to your HPC, assist with surveying potential historic districts, and write grants. Your local design guidelines are based on the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation (“the Standards”) as well as local sensibilities.  The staff will make sure you have a copy of your ordinance and design guidelines. Be sure to ask questions about anything you don't understand.

In the early stages of your project before your designs are finalized, you should contact your design review staff or meet with your HPC. The staff and/or HPC will be able to offer you technical assistance to ensure your proposed project is sensitive to the historic character of your property. Often, the design review staff can prevent potential issues with a rehabilitation project that would not comply with the design guidelines. In addition, your HPC might allow design review staff members to make decisions about certain aspects of your project without going through the HPC meeting process. If the design review staff determines that your work requires HPC review, you will have to prepare a CoA application and present your case before the HPC.

Apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness

Before you begin any work on your building, you must get a Certificate of Appropriateness (CoA). A CoA is an application form that must be completed and approved before you are granted a building permit. If you begin work prior to obtaining a CoA, you will be in violation of your historic preservation ordinance. This could result in delays and/or the need to make expensive changes. A CoA allows you to do the following activities with your property if it is located within a historic district:

  • Approved exterior alteration
  • Addition
  • New construction
  • Demolition

Usually the CoA must be posted on the work site along with the building permit. This practice helps to ensure that the work being performed is in keeping with the design guidelines and intent of your city’s historic preservation ordinance.

Prepare Your Application

Your municipality will have a CoA application form for you to complete.  The project narrative is the most important part of this application. In the project narrative, you describe the current condition of your property and your proposed work.  When you are completing this narrative, consider these questions:

  • What parts of the building or site does your project involve?
  • How do those elements relate to the other parts of your historic property?
  • Will your project involve features of the property that are visible from public view?

Along with the application form, you will need to submit additional information to convey the scope of your proposed project. This information could include the following items: 

  • A site plan showing a bird’s eye view of your property drawn to scale showing the property lines and including as many measurements as possible, your building, its orientation to the street and any alleys or sidewalks.
  • Current photographs of the front, side and rear elevations of your building (if a structure exists on the site) as well as  detailed photos to show existing conditions.
  • Historic photos of the building if they are available.
  • Sketches of your proposed work.
  • A full set of plans and specifications showing the proposed appearance of, and materials to be applied to, the exterior of your building.
  • A rendering showing the facades of your building and noting the materials you plan to apply to the building’s exterior.

It is your responsibility to complete the application thoroughly. For most projects, you will be able to complete the application yourself. For a large and complicated exterior rehabilitation, you may want to hire a preservation consultant or architect to assist you. Sometimes it is also a good idea to have your contractor involved in the application process. These professionals can provide descriptions, drawings and samples for your application. You must submit your application materials prior to your meeting date, so pay close attention to the deadlines for application submissions.

Present Your Case to Your HPC

When you have submitted your CoA application with all the documents and samples, a staff person will review your application and forward it to the HPC along with his or her recommendations. You will be asked to present your case for a CoA at a future meeting of your HPC. Most HPCs meet once a month. 

On the date of your meeting with your HPC, be sure you arrive on time with any additional materials that can help your application. If you've hired professionals to help plan your project, ask them to attend the meeting as well. When you present your case, keep your comments short and to the point. Answer any questions to the best of your ability. Remember that your HPC is a quasi-judicial body and probably runs its meetings using Robert's Rules of Order. This means everything you or the HPC members say or do at the meeting is on public record. Your HPC’s decisions have legal weight.

Your HPC will discuss your application and vote on it. The commission may approve your design plan, approve it with additional requirements or reject it completely. If you've worked with your design review staff in advance, it is unlikely your application will be completely denied. Regardless of the HPC’s decision, you will receive a notice of the HPC’s decision.

Once you have a CoA, you can apply for a building permit. Your building department will not issue a building permit for a locally designated property unless there is an official CoA on file. When you get underway with your rehabilitation project, you may run into unforeseen circumstances that will require additional review and approval. Contact your design review staff and/or HPC to complete a new or amended CoA.