Work with Your Local Government | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Work with Your Local Government to Advocate for Historic Preservation

Work with Your Local Government | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

To effectively promote historic preservation in your community, your historic preservation advocacy group should develop a cooperative working relationship with your local government. The approach your group takes in this relationship will largely depend on whether your community already has a historic preservation ordinance, a historic preservation commission (HPC) or both. If your community has an HPC, it would be best for your advocacy group to develop a direct relationship with your commission. If your community does not have a preservation ordinance or HPC, your group might want to advocate for them.

Your HPC, as an arm of government, must fairly administer its legal responsibilities under your community's historic preservation ordinance. To fulfill its legal responsibilities, your HPC is required to be objective and therefore cannot advocate for preservation. Your private advocacy group, however, is free to advocate and take a position on preservation issues and policies.  If your community has an HPC, your advocacy group should strive to play a complementary role with your HPC. These two organizations (one public, the other private) will be most effective if they “play to their strengths.” 

To find out how to get started on working with your local government to advocate for historic preservation, follow the four steps below.

Step 1: Determine if Your Community has a Historic Preservation Ordinance

The first thing your advocacy group should do is find out if your community has enacted a historic preservation ordinance. Since 1993, Wisconsin cities that contain properties listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places have been required by state law to adopt a historic preservation ordinance. If an ordinance has been enacted in your community, you should be able to find information about it on your local government's website. If you do not find a preservation ordinance online, check with your municipal clerk. If your community has a preservation ordinance, get a copy of the ordinance for your group's reference.

TIP: If your community has not enacted a historic preservation ordinance, you should contact local decision-makers to assess whether your community has enough political support to enact a historic preservation ordinance. Evaluate both the general support in your community and support among key public and private decision-makers. It will take some time for your group to advocate for the passage of a preservation ordinance. This effort will likely require a broad educational campaign, since your group will probably have to dispel many myths about historic preservation in general and historic preservation ordinances specifically.

Step 2:  Determine if Your Community has a Historic Preservation Commission

If you find that your community has a historic preservation ordinance in place, your next step is to determine if an HPC has been appointed. Approximately 170 Wisconsin communities have enacted a historic preservation ordinance. However, many of those communities have not taken the next step to formally appoint a commission to administer their ordinance. Keep in mind that your historic preservation commission might go by another name, such as the landmarks commission.

If your community has appointed a commission, find out if it is active and meets regularly. If your commission is not active or meeting on a regular basis, find out why by asking members of the commission. Sometimes an HPC is inactive because it is unaware of preservation issues that need to be addressed. Your advocacy group can educate the commission and the public at large about your community's preservation needs and issues. The more people know about historic preservation in your community, the more likely your group will spark some action from your commission or local government.

TIP: If a historic preservation commission has not been appointed in your community, your advocacy group should encourage your local government to appoint a commission to administer your historic preservation ordinance. An active HPC can develop and support programs and policies through your municipal government in many ways. For example, your HPC could designate historic properties as local landmarks. It could also review and comment on new and existing municipal codes, ordinances, and plans that may affect historic properties. By having an active HPC, your municipality will be eligible to become a Certified Local Government (CLG). A municipality with CLG status can apply for certain grants from the Wisconsin Historical Society (see Step 4 below).

Step 3: Determine Who Serves as the Key Contact Person on Your Commission

Your advocacy group's next step is to determine who serves as the key contact person on your preservation commission. If your community's HPC has a dedicated municipal staff person, your group should develop an ongoing working relationship with that person. If there is no dedicated staff person, then you should try to work as closely as possible with the commission's chairperson. Your community's planning department may be responsible for staffing your preservation commission. In smaller communities, staffing responsibilities may be delegated to the municipal clerk or even the fire department.

TIP: Regardless of who you are working with on your preservation commission, your advocacy group should outline a government relations approach and develop a good working relationship with the municipal clerk and other unelected public officials, such as municipal administrators. Keep in mind that municipal clerks, even though they are not elected, have a lot of authority over how a local government is run.

Step 4: Determine if Your Municipality is a Certified Local Government

Your advocacy group's final step is to determine if your municipality is a Certified Local Government. This certification is done through a formal application process with the State Historic Preservation Office at the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Park Service. If your community has been approved as a CLG, your community is eligible to apply for grant funding from the Wisconsin Historical Society to do these activities:

  • Undertake architectural and archaeological surveys
  • Prepare a local landmark designation
  • Prepare a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places
  • Administer municipal historic preservation programs
  • Develop municipal historic preservation plans
  • Produce educational activities

You can quickly find out if your community is a CLG by checking the National Park Service's Certified Local Governments listing. If your community is a CLG, your advocacy group can encourage your local government to apply for CLG grant funding.

TIP: If your community is not a CLG, find out why by inquiring with your municipal staff or your commission chair. Your advocacy group can work with your HPC or local government to find out if your community might be eligible for a CLG grant. You can determine this by checking with the CLG Coordinator, Jason Tish, in the State Historic Preservation Office, at 608-264-6512 or by email:

Learn More

 To learn more about governmental roles in historic preservation, see the following information: