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Janesville City Council may decide on historic preservation plan

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
August 6, 2011
— Government sometimes tells us what we can do with our properties, especially in a city, where people and businesses coexist close together.

The rules can keep neighbors from turning their homes into bars or pig farms or junkyards, for example.


It’s all the name of orderly development, safety, keeping the peace and other reasons that are supposed to be good for everyone but don’t always please everyone.


One of those reasons is historic preservation. A city’s historic buildings might be privately owned, but they’re also a part of the city’s charm and heritage. Some would argue, however, that government can go too far in telling a landowner what he can or cannot do with his own building.


That’s where the public good and private rights clash, and they’re likely to clash when the Janesville City Council meets Monday.


The council will hear public comments and then vote on a proposed historic overlay district that could restrict what downtown property owners could to when making changes to their buildings’ exteriors.


The city’s historic and plan commissions don’t agree on how far the city should go.


The historic commission favors a more restrictive version. It wants to be able to tell property owners what they can do.


The plan commission in July asked the historic commission to soften the rules so the historic commission’s wishes would not be binding.


The historic commission rejected that approach and listed reasons:


-- The city’s only other historic overlay district, the Courthouse Hill District, has issued 187 certificates in its 20 years but only a few have been controversial. This shows a good track record in working with residents, the commission said.


-- The proposed overlay district includes the 145 parcels in existing historic districts and adds only about 55 more. A historic district differs from a historic overlay district in that the former makes buildings eligible for tax-credit programs and building-code variances, while the latter requires the historic commission approval for exterior building changes.


-- Landowners can appeal historic commission decisions to the plan commission or city council.


The city’s Community Development Department sides with the historic commission. At least some property owners do not. The owners of one building in the proposed district tore the building down this week, saying they didn’t want to be subject to the proposed rules.


“I understand the concerns from both sides of the issue,” said council member Tom McDonald. “On one hand we definitely want do what we can to save our historic structures in the downtown and in the city. On the other hand I’m extremely wary about taking away people’s property rights or having too much government intervention or control over people’s property rights …


“We’ve really got to balance and weigh those two factors,” McDonald said.


The council on Monday will hold a public hearing on an ordinance that establishes the district’s boundaries and could then vote on that. Council action also will follow a second public hearing on the plan, which includes rules to be applied in the district.


Council President George Brunner said the council could vote yes or no, but there’s a “good possibility” of a third option: The council could send the controversy back to the plan and historic commissions for more work.


City manager Eric Levitt favors the third option.


On the agenda

The Janesville City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the Janesville Municipal Building, 18 N. Jackson St., Janesville. The agenda includes:


-- Allowing outdoor lighting and an extension of nighttime volleyball hours from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Sneakers Bar & Grill, 1221 Woodman Road.


-- A request to waive fees for park usage for Partners in Prevention’s annual Family Fun Fest.


-- Introduction and scheduling a public hearing for a request to annex property that includes Wedges bar/restaurant at 2006 N. County E in Janesville Township. The owners want to connect to city water and sewer after the building’s septic system failed.


-- A closed session to consider selling two undeveloped lots, at 3207 and 3201 Rockport Park Drive, to Jeremy Jorgenson, for $15,000 each.


-- Allowing Class B beer and Class C wine licenses for the Italian House restaurant, 1603 E. Racine St.



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