Proposal would give Janesville Historic Commission veto power
IF YOU GO
A public hearing on the proposed changes to historic overlay districts is set before the Janesville Plan Commission at 6:30 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 18 N. Jackson St.
A second public hearing is scheduled before the council on Monday, April 26, after which the council is expected to vote on the proposal.
Residents can get a draft of the proposed ordinance at City Hall or can go online to the city’s Web site, ci.janesville.wi.us, and find it under plan commission agenda materials. Residents in the Courthouse Hill Historic District already should have received letters with information about the public hearings.
JANESVILLE An ordinance to regulate exterior work on historic homes is described by some property owners as protecting their rights.
Others say it would take their rights away.
The Janesville City Council on April 26 will consider whether to give the historic commission the power to deny a resident a permit for exterior work on homes in overlay districts if commission members deem the work historically inappropriate.
The commission has operated for 20 years in an advisory capacity. It can delay a property owner’s plans for up to six months. Members use that time to work with the homeowners to find what they consider to be more appropriate ways to do the work. But the owner still can go ahead and do what he or she wants after six months.
Below are some questions and answers about the proposed changes to the ordinance.
Q: What would the ordinance do?
A: It would give the Janesville Historic Commission the power to deny a building permit to make specific exterior changes to homes in historic overlay districts. The ordinance is similar to that used in some other Wisconsin communities, Brad Cantrell, community development director, said.
The resident could appeal the commission’s decision to the council.
Now, the homeowner must wait six months but then is issued a permit to do the work. He or she can appeal the decision to the plan commission.
Q: How many overlay districts are there?
A: The Courthouse Hill Historic District is the major district in the city and contains 274 contributing buildings. Some buildings are considered non-contributing, and they would likely not need to go through the process of appearing before the commission to do exterior work.
Four individual buildings also are in overlay districts:
-- The Armory, 10 S. High St.
-- Interiors, 225 W. Milwaukee St.
-- Kealey Pharmacy and Home Care Service, 21 S. Jackson St.
-- The Carriage Works Building, 201 E. Milwaukee St.
The commission hopes to create other historic overlay districts within the city.
Q: Why do commission members think this is needed?
A: Commission members believe residents of the Courthouse Hill Historic District support strengthening the ordinance, Cantrell said.
“We have so many old buildings that are important to the fabric of the community, and we should really protect that resource,” he said.
The changes would be a logical progression of an ordinance approved by the council in 1981, Cantrell said. The six-month delay was a compromise forged at the time.
Q: Has the current system worked?
A: All involved say it has worked well.
Over the past two decades, the commission has reviewed about 125 permit applications. Four were denied. One of the four was appealed to the plan commission. One permit applicant waited until the six-month waiting period expired and then proceeded with the work. Two applicants didn't do the work at all.
Committee members do a good job of visiting the properties and working with residents to solve disagreements, Cantrell said. Tim Maahs, commission member, said members understand the financial constraints faced by many residents and try to find alternative, more affordable materials.
Most people who live in the district do so because they love historic homes, commission members say.
But residents were recently shaken when the owner of the Lovejoy home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, removed details and encased the home in a concrete-like material. The owner did not go before the commission to get approval for the work.
Q: Several residents have said the ordinance could be challenged in court. Is that likely?
A: Legal backing for such an ordinance exists, Cantrell said.
“Communities have had these since the early 70s,” he said.
Q: Is there a penalty included in the ordinance?
A: The penalties would remain the same as in the current advisory ordinance. If a homeowner does work without a permit, he or she can be fined up to $500 a day.
Q: What do people need permits for?
A: Changes to windows, door openings, window openings, porches, dormers, rooflines, siding and fences would require permits. The commission also proposes requiring owners to get building permits if they want to remove architectural details.
Property owners would not need permits to change the colors of exterior paint, roofing materials if they are not replacing rafters or landscaping.
Q: There is talk of creating a downtown overlay district. Would this ordinance, if passed, apply to all future overlays, as well?
A: Yes. About 163 properties would be included in the downtown overlay district.
Rich Fletcher, commission chairman, said the Old Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods could also benefit from overlays. He noted that there are many historical homes in both areas that could be protected.
WHAT THEY SAID
Below are excerpts of comments from residents and commission members at an information meeting late last year on proposed changes to the overlay district ordinance:
Bill Westphal, 102 Sinclair St.: “I think the goals are fine. I just have problems with (violating) the concept of private property and property rights.”
Westphal said he was treated fairly by the commission during a garage renovation, but in the end he refused to use wood siding. He worries that a commission with the power to deny a project could require expensive material with a cost that could not be realized when the property is sold.
Bruce Monson, 602 E. Milwaukee St.: “I never had a problem working with the committee. I really believe this is needed as (a) historical preservation guardian. I’m OK with eliminating the sixth-month provision as long as we can have a decent appeals process.”
Roger Merry, 515 St. Lawrence St.: “It’s as if to say, ‘We don’t trust the people who live there to preserve your houses, and we need to tell you how to do that.’ Frankly, that’s offensive. Who could you better trust …”
Merry said he did not have a good experience working with the commission, and he ended up doing what he wanted to anyway after sixth months. He said the standards of the commission are not attainable because original material can’t be found.
“Nothing scares away a potential buyer more than restrictions,” Merry said. “This will ensure that we kill the value of the property.”
Merry also said more people on the commission should live in Courthouse Hill. Two members of the seven-member commission, Tim Maahs and Dan Atwood, live there now.
“I don’t think it is right that they can tell the Courthouse Hill neighbors what the neighborhood should look like but don’t want to live there and don’t have to spend the money to afford to fix it like they want … We need accountability because no one’s elected (to the commission.
“I don’t want committee who haven’t dealt with the frustrations and challenges of maintaining an old home.”
Bruce Dennis, commission member: “We want to be more proactive. We have such an incredible treasure in this city … Ninety-nine percent of the people buy these homes because they love them, and they want to do the right thing for the good of the resource and the community.”
The broader issue is private rights versus the public good, he said.
“Isn’t this the right thing to do?”
He said the proposed ordinance also would work well in other parts of the city, such as the Old Fourth Ward, to protect its many rental properties.
Val Saxer, 217 S. Atwood St.: “I think we need to do this because of exactly what happened with the Lovejoy house in front of all of us and in spite of protest. It just went on and on and on until it’s stripped to look the way it looks … If it requires more regulations, so be it. If you don’t like them, don’t move to the neighborhood. We’ve got to protect something bigger than just what we want for ourselves.”
Saxer has appeared before the commission in the past and received a “huge amount of support and guidance. I appreciate the efforts all of you give to us.”
Pat Newlin 606 E. Court St.: “I can understand what you want to do. I just have a hard time allowing you to get into my private property and tell me what I can and can’t do, and you don’t have a nickel invested in it … I have no desire to do damage to my house. (But) a great expense comes from living in an older home for you to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Fred Harmon, 721 Milwaukee St.: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to live in a historic overlay district and be putting on vinyl siding and doing whatever you want. You don’t own that house forever. Someone else is going to own that. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s the whole neighborhood, not just your house.”
Harmon said some of his neighbors do not maintain their properties, and the area includes many rentals.
“I would like to live where all of the homeowners took care of properties real nice ... but that’s not the case. It’s a neighborhood that can go either way.”