EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—After a long discussion, the City of Marinette Common Council leaned away from placing further limits on individual property owner rights when it voted to kill a proposal brought forward by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
The proposal sought to change the city’s Historic Preservation Overlay District ordinance (No. 13.3100), to better leverage the city’s and individual property owners’ abilities to apply for various annual grants and potential federal and state tax incentives focused on historic preservation.
Specifically, the failed amendment would have introduced a measure of public input when it comes to the preservation of Marinette’s historic places and structures. Some of those places already reside on the U.S. National Park Services National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), while others—by choice of their owner—are designated “locally” historic. Each designation is different and each comes with certain benefits as well as caveats related to the property owner’s rights to make changes to the structure.
Those councilmembers opposing the proposal argued that the changes infringed on the right of choice that an individual property owner possesses when it comes to designating his/her property as “locally” historic.
THE EYES OF THE HISTORIAN
With imagination, one can sense the whisper of past lives, burly lumbermen, local artists, attorneys, shopkeepers and community leaders, pushing in from winter’s howling winds, and inhaling the brewed and lively atmosphere of the long-vanished saloon that once existed inside the historic Dunlap Square Building. The structure’s rustic bricks and Queen Anne-style architecture angles through downtown Marinette and dates back to the late 1800s.
In the eyes of local history experts, within the City of Marinette exist a handful of such historically notable structures that, if they suddenly vanished overnight, the city’s social and cultural fabric would be forever altered. For places rooted in time like Dunlap Square, the Lauerman Brothers Department Store or the Bijou Theater, the initial threads of that historic fabric spans a century or more of Marinette’s history.
“Currently, in Marinette, there are no legal means for the public to have any input on the future of the historic buildings this city,” said City of Marinette common councilmember Jason Flatt, who also sits on the HPC and assisted in drawing up the proposed amendment that the council ultimately rejected. “The property owner(s) can do whatever they want to with those buildings … anything from tearing it down to fixing it up.”
Despite their listing on the National Register (NRHP), no such historic preservation protection exists for buildings like Dunlap Square, Lauerman and the Bijou; the listing is solely an honorary recognition.
“Under Federal Law, the listing of a property in the National Register places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with their property up to and including destruction ...” according to the NRHP.
But designating a property as “locally” historic allows for public input about what happens to historic places. Currently, in Marinette, this can only occur when the property owner requests it.
While Flatt agrees that sometimes old, historically relevant building can outlive their safe and useful existence, compelling their inevitable razing, he feels strongly that the historic value of such structures necessitates an allowance for public input prior to that razing. Flatt also serves as the President of the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions.
“Frankly, the answer may be that someday those buildings may need to come down,” Flatt said. “And that is fine. But there is currently no public input on that process.”
THE FAILED AMENDMENT
Opinions driving the council’s final vote opposing amendment teetered on the idea of weighing individual property owner rights against the historic preservation as well as the ability to access certain grants and federal and state tax credits.
Councilmembers who opposed the amendment expressed unease about the potential restraints it could pose to individual property owners.
“This boils down to the homeowner not having a say and the council having a say in whether the property is historic or not,” said councilmember Rick Polzin, who voted no. “I just have a problem with us substituting the judgment of the council with individual property rights.”
Presented to the council Tuesday by HPC Chairman Dan Kallgren, the proposed ordinance change also sought to implement benefits of available grant money and tax incentives for property owners.
“The big point behind this (proposal) is that (many) cities are trying to do whatever they can to leverage money to rehab buildings,” Kallgren said. “And these tax credits, particularly in Wisconsin, are very generous.”
Kallgren also serves as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay—Marinette.
Essentially, the amendment pertained to the way in which individual structures (both private and commercial) in Marinette receive historic designations at the local level. As presently stated in the ordinance—and as it will remain after Tuesday’s vote—the method by which local properties acquire historic designation begins with the property owner’s desire and subsequent request for that designation.
But the current ordinance fails to meet certain criteria designating it with “certified local government (CGL) status.” Lacking that CGL status the city cannot apply for federal funds (CGL grants) administered by the State of Wisconsin Historic Preservation Office. And to Polzin’s point, the council’s primary contention to the proposal emerged from another CGL criteria stating that any local historic preservation recommendation made by the HPC “may not be advisory.” Once listed as locally historic, any external changes or additions the property owner desires to make, primarily on the external portion of the structure, must adhere to certain restrictions that ensure the preservation of the structure’s original historic character.
The failed amendment would have aligned Marinette’s ordinance with CGL status. Specifically, it would have created a two-step process that puts the onus of initiating the process of local historic designation with the HPC instead of with the property owner. Once the HPC makes the recommendation, the process would then continue with a presentation to the City Council and arguments for or against the designation from both the property owner and the HPC
As stated on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website, each CGL needs to meet certain criteria, one of which states that the municipal government must provide for public input in the local historic preservation program.
“The fact that our current ordinance (requires) the necessity of the property owner to ‘opt into’ having their property designated as a historic structure takes (Marinette) out of compliance (for GGL grant applications),” Kallgren said.
He explained that CGL grants can be applied to the expensive process involved in listing local properties on the NRHP, which opens up various other opportunities like the ability for property owners to apply for “some very generous tax credits.”
For instance, when it comes to that income-producing property on the NRHP can receive a 20% federal tax credit matched by a 20% state tax credit for any work on the exterior of these buildings, mandating only that any work performed conforms to the historic character and nature of the building, according to Kallgren.
According to the NRHP, “listing in the National Register creates eligibility for National Park Service-administered federal preservation tax credits that have leveraged more than $45 billion in private investment and National Park Service grant programs.”
In Marinette, according to Kallgren, only two such structures currently possess a local historic designation, which their owners requested: Mickey-Lu Bar-B-Q and a home on Riverside Avenue owned by Flatt and his wife.
THE CAVEAT OF A PROPERTY OWNER’S CHOICE
Councilmember Jeffrey, who serves on the City Plan Commission, pointed out that the Plan Commission’s decision to forward the proposal to the council involved a comprehensive discussion.
“It imposes certain restrictions on a homeowner that they may or may not know when they buy the property. For those reasons the Plan Commission really wanted the entire city council to weigh in on this,” Skorik said.
Skorik also voted no.
Offering personal perspective councilmember Doug Oitzinger, who voted yes, commented that many cities throughout Wisconsin fall under CGL status where both the resident and/or the municipality can recommend designating a structure locally historic and that it has been very successful for those communities. He continued by addressing the fact that communities already live and operate under many existing zoning law restrictions.
“Everything we have in our ordinance book on building codes and zoning restricts property owners. Every. Last. Word. You can do this but you can’t do that. You can build this but you can’t build that,” he said.
In the end, the majority of council members disagreed. For now, the choice to recommend a local historic designation of a property remains with the individual property owner.
The day after the vote, Kallgren expressed he felt a bit downcast regarding the Council’s decision. However, he also saw the innate value of the history of a nation that allowed for such a vote to occur.
“Obviously I’m a historian, so I see the value of history,” he said. “But it’s a trade-off, communities have to decide for themselves how much the historic part of a community they want to ensure goes forward unchanged versus the property rights of individual owners. And these are contentious issues all around the country ... and so the city spoke and we will move forward.”