Members to decide early this year if group should be replaced by historical society
The Grafton Historic Preservation Commission’s days may be numbered.
After voicing concern about the commission’s role as a village committee, members agreed in December to consider disbanding the group and replacing it with a nonprofit historical society.
“Right now, it’s an idea that we’re exploring,” said Commission Chairman David Liss, a village trustee.
“We’re hoping to discuss it more at our next meeting (Jan. 21) and then getting input from residents who may be interested in joining a historical society.”
Since being established in 1995, the commission has had a chief mission of identifying commercial buildings, residences and other structures and sites as potential Grafton landmarks.
Under the guidance of longtime chairman Ralph Zaun, the commission presented its first report of 36 recommended sites in 1999.
That list has been updated several times since, but few privately owned properties have received official landmark status because the designation requires the owners’ participation. Many owners have been reluctant to take part because they must agree to maintain the site or structure without significantly altering its exterior appearance.
“The village has designated several publicly owned structures but only three private properties,” Village Administrator Darrell Hofland said.
Among the village-owned sites designated as landmarks are the lime kilns in Lime Kiln Park on Green Bay Road, the downtown Bridge Street dam and the Timothy Wooden Building, 111 Broad St.
The restrictions have also prompted several owners who initially accepted landmark designations to withdraw from the program. On Monday, the Village Board agreed to rescind the designation for Zaun’s house, 1757 12th Ave., at the request of his widow Edith Zaun.
In her request, Mrs. Zaun told the commission she believes the house no longer has significant historic characteristics and that the landmark designation is viewed negatively by potential buyers.
An inability to secure more landmark designations has limited the commission’s work, as has a lack of funding in the village budget, Liss said.
“It has been a little frustrating,” Liss said. “The restrictions we have in Grafton aren’t as strict as those in other communities, but a lot of property owners still don’t want to participate.”
Last fall, the seven-member commission discussed advantages and disadvantages of forming a historical society, Liss said. Creating a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status would allow residents, businesses and groups to make tax-deductible donations for preservation efforts and other projects, he noted.
“Right now, there isn’t any money in the village budget (for historical preservation), and you can’t donate to the village and receive a tax deduction,” Liss said.
Hofland concurred. “I think members of the Historic Preservation Commission are frustrated by a lack of community awareness of their efforts,” he said.
“Their goal has always been to create more awareness and generate more interest.”
Enlisting Town of Grafton residents in that effort could help expand the interest level, Hofland added.
In December, commission members agreed to discuss the future of the committee when they meet at 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, at Village Hall. A February meeting is expected to be scheduled to gauge public interest in forming a historical society.
“If no one shows up, we would probably just continue the way we have been,” Liss said.
The group has also discussed establishing a museum to house historical artifacts.
A new bill proposed in the state Legislature calls for eliminating municipalities’ ability to designate historic landmarks without the property owners’ consent. That process is used in many communities with established historic districts.
The bill is co-sponsored by state Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) and state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), who said the intent of the proposed law is to protect property owners’ right and standardize the landmark designation process.
The law would not affect the Village of Grafton, which Hofland said has always required the owners’ consent for designations. Hofland said former Trustee Al Schlecht helped ensure that a cooperative effort between the village and owners.
“He felt very strongly that property rights were important and encouraged the Village Board to secure their involvement as much as possible,” Hofland said.