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Friday, 22 January 2016 11:35

Could legislation derail Beloit's historic preservation efforts?

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Beloit City Planner Alex Morganroth outside the historic Selvy Blodgett House. Morganroth fears a bill making its way through the Wisconsin Legislature could derail the city’s recent historic preservation initiative. Beloit City Planner Alex Morganroth outside the historic Selvy Blodgett House. Morganroth fears a bill making its way through the Wisconsin Legislature could derail the city’s recent historic preservation initiative. Terry Mayer/staff

STATELINE NEWS -- The city of Beloit is surveying its oldest properties for consideration as historic landmarks, but a proposal making its way through the Wisconsin Legislature could derail those efforts.

City Planner Alex Morganroth said once a building has been designated as a landmark or historic district, it is eligible to be placed on the State Register of Historic Places and National Register of Historic Places and is protected by the city’s historic preservation ordinance, meaning any exterior alterations made to the building must be approved by city staff or the landmark commission.

The bill working its way through the Assembly would threaten historic preservation efforts by making it more difficult for municipalities to protect historic landmarks and establish historic districts.

"It’s important to protect these (historic buildings)," Morganroth said. "There are numerous studies that have shown the benefits of protecting these historically significant buildings, both for property values and overall happiness and enjoyment of people."

Assembly Bill 568 would require cities to get owners’ permission before designating a historic building, Morganroth said, and it doesn’t allow cities to regulate modifications of the building,

"So, basically, it would make our historic preservation ordinance go away and make it useless," Morganroth said, "because we wouldn’t be able to regulate anything, which would be harmful for historic preservation in Wisconsin, especially Beloit."

He fears the legislation would allow anyone to tear down a building or severely modify it, and it would probably destroy the historic significance of a lot of the buildings in Beloit, unless people choose to protect them on their own.

The current version of the bill would require the owner of a building eligible for designation as a historic property, or two-thirds of the homeowners in an area eligible to be designated a historic district, to vote within 60 days that they are in favor of the designation, according to Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton,

If the designation is voted down, municipalities will be prevented from attempting again for a year.

Loudenbeck said the amendment makes the bill more reasonable.

"We’re trying to make sure people living in the district have a say," she said. "The substitute amendment strikes a balance."

The bill was scheduled for a committee vote on Thursday, Loundenbeck said, and she is not certain when the bill would be voted on by the full Assembly.

A similar bill, SB 445, is working its way through the state Senate.

"There are a lot of hoops that it has to jump through," Loudenbeck said. "The Assembly’s next regular session is scheduled for Feb. 9, so there will be a two-week break."

Survey of history

The last time Beloit conducted a study on historic districts and buildings was in 1981. After that study, about 300 buildings were designated as historic landmarks. Areas that have been designated as historic districts include the Merrill Street, College Park and Bluff Street districts.

The Beloit Landmarks Commission in November hired Legacy Architects to conduct a survey.

Robert Short, historic preservation consultant for Legacy Architects, said they conducted an architectural survey of all the city’s buildings to determine if they could be eligible for landmark status.

"We’re creating an inventory of historic buildings in Beloit. We’re trying to determine if they’ve maintained their historic heritage or architecture," Short said. "We’re trying to determine if they still look as they did when they were constructed. We’re trying to determine if they haven’t been overly modernized or altered. We’re trying to determine if windows have been resided or replaced and if the building has been preserved well."

Short said the next step is to conduct historical research on homes and buildings that could be designated as landmarks.

"There are history students at Beloit College that are helping us do that," Short said. "All the results will be put in a report document that will probably be released later this spring. Then we will conduct a public presentation during a preservation commission meeting."

Morganroth said the consultant is researching both residential and commercial properties. A building has to be at least 50 years old in order to be considered for landmark status.

"They look at everything. I know they’re excited because Beloit has older, historic industrial buildings, which none of them are landmarked at this point," Morganroth said. "I know they’re looking at those to see if they can be included in the national registry or locally landmarked."

Morganroth said a building often is determined to be a landmark if a historic event occurred there.

"If it’s a building that a president spoke at, that qualifies it as historic," Morganroth said. "They look at events and architectural significance of the building. They look at how well the building has been preserved. If it’s an old house that had wooded siding that has been pulled off and replaced with vinyl siding, that would be a negative and it would be disqualified as a historic building."

Morganroth said the city decided to conduct the survey after receiving a $22,000 grant from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"It was the right time and right place," Morganroth said. "I think it’s going to turn out really great. It’s going to provide us with some really great information going forward."

Morganroth said the city plans to use the historic buildings and districts to help promote tourism in the area.

"The thing we’re focusing on now is historic tourism or heritage tourism," Morganroth said. "There’s a lot of people who are interested in older buildings, and Beloit is unique in that we have a lot of them and they’ve been protected pretty well so far."

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