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Mike Nichols: Property rights shouldn't be a 'fuzzy area'

7:13 PM, Apr. 6, 2013  |  Comments

Joe Fazio doesn't own Commerce State Bank. Shareholders do. But he runs the little place that has a branch in West Bend and another across the street from a custard stand in Cedarburg.

Realizing the growing bank could use a new building, he spearheaded an effort to buy the land the custard stand sits on as well as a couple adjacent parcels that include a wooded area and a big, old, yellow, stucco house that contains a bridal shop.

So, after spending close to a million dollars buying the properties and making plans, Commerce now owns all that. Well, sort of.

It seems that in Cedarburg and perhaps in other small towns in Wisconsin where preservationists immune to the struggles of the present are hellbent on saving something from the past - no matter how small or deeply buried or obscure - ownership is a relative thing.

"Property rights," to borrow the words of one Cedarburg Landmarks Commission member at a recent meeting about Commerce's purchase, "are a fuzzy area."

"You don't have full rights to your property," the member, a local architect by the name of Tom Kubala, said at a commission meeting. "There is a community aspect to it."

Kubala is actually not the only one who feels that way. Not long ago, some descendants of family that has a long history in Cedarburg, the Zeunerts, asked that the yellow, stucco house be designated a local landmark because their ancestors, including one who was a mayor, once lived there. It was pointed out that, once upon a time, there was even an 1800s-era fieldstone home on the land. And, some say, it is still there. Under all that stucco. Although, even if it is, it's been added onto and renovated and changed and obscured so much that almost no one else seems sure what's left of it.

Still, the Landmarks Commission recently voted 4-2 to designate the stucco and whatever is underneath it a local "landmark." Which means that Fazio, at least right now, can't tear it down or proceed with the new bank or plans to sell a portion of the land to the local custard stand owner who also wants to build a new place.

People who are astonished that the city can essentially deny a private owner his rights because they wonder what's underneath some stucco are also wondering what the plaque for the landmark might say.

Here is a stone house. We think. Maybe. We're not actually sure what's left of it, if anything. But it's historic. We're pretty sure.

There are many buildings worth designating as landmarks all over both Cedarburg and the rest of Wisconsin. This is not one of them. This is preservation run amok. Fazio says he will give the descendants anything from the place they want. But what they really want, it appears, is for things to remain the same as they are right now.

So Fazio is stuck unless the local Plan Commission overrides the Landmarks Commission and lets him raze the stucco-clad "landmark" and proceed with the new bank and custard stand.

If the Plan Commission agrees with the Landmarks Commission on the other hand, no one seems exactly sure what exactly will happen. One Landmarks Commissioner suggested Fazio might be able to tear down the stucco house after a 6-month waiting period. The Zeunert descendants say the designation would "protect the home for only 6 months to see if we can make other arrangements."

Fazio himself wonders whether he might have to go to court.

If it comes to that, I just hope there is a lot of space on his side of the courtroom for everyone who lives in a city like Cedarburg and has a renovated home they think they actually own.

- Mike Nichols: mrnichols@wi.rr.com

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