Gibraltar Debates Historic District Ordinance

Town board gatherings are typically characterized by the monotony of procedure and mundane detail, but a public hearing June 12 concerning the proposed Historic Character Preservation Ordinance in the Town of Gibraltar brought out emotions on both sides of the issue.

It was the rare Door County debate that didn’t simply pit developers on one side of the issue and aging home-owners on the other. Nearly every speaker began their remarks by stating how far back their ties to the village could be traced, with the hearing nearly devolving into a subtle contest of whose family had been in town longer or whose ties were stronger. Those testifying for and against the proposal spoke passionately of their roots and their desire to preserve Fish Creek‘s historic buildings, but they were diametrically opposed on how to do so.

David Boyd of the Gibraltar Planning Commission began the meeting by presenting the ordinance to the audience of about 60 people. He said the primary purpose of the ordinance was to provide for the creation of a Historic Preservation Commission and define its duties, not to define specific standards or geographic boundaries.

The Historic Preservation Commission would be made of five members appointed by the Town Chairperson and confirmed by the Town Board. The ordinance says the commission would prefer that the composition of the Commission include the following: (1) a member of the Town Board or Planning Commission, (2) an owner/operator of an active business within the Town of Gibraltar, (3) an active member of the Gibraltar Historical Association, (4) an owner of a Historic Structure, or a resident living within the Town of Gibraltar and (5) an architect, a designer, or a builder familiar with historic buildings.

“We see this as the best way to implement the unanimously adopted comprehensive plan, which was approved July 7, 2004,” Boyd said. “If we don’t, the uniqueness of character that is so crucial in attracting visitors and residents will be no more.”

After Boyd gave his overview of the ordinance, the floor was opened for testimonials from those for and against it. Gary Cadwallader spoke at length in favor, imploring the attendees to develop a long-term vision for the town.

Cadwallader said the town’s “character is currently defined by individual property owners on a property by property basis” due to the lack of a Historic Preservation Ordinance.

Opponents took issue with the broad language in the ordinance that could result in it being applied to the entire Town of Gibraltar, including both new construction and existing structures, and the lack of details concerning historic standards.

Paul Woerfel, owner of the Homestead Motel, said he considered speaking in favor of the ordinance, but couldn’t support it as written.

“There are parts of this I truly believe in,” he said. “But I worry about the method that you’re using. I’m against a historic district that contains more non-historic than historic buildings. I’m in favor of it for landmarks and structures that truly need to be protected.”

Woerfel suggested implementing design and review standards instead of the preservation ordinance.

Some opponents of the ordinance said they were against it because it infringed on private property rights.

“This ordinance is taking away my rights as a property owner to do with my property as I see fit,” said Terry Boland, owner of the Summertime Restaurant in downtown Fish Creek since 1981. “Passage of this would substantially lower the value of both my properties downtown.”

Supporters argued preservation efforts would only serve to increase visitors and property values in the area. Andy Coulson, owner of the White Gull Inn, said visitors implore him daily to preserve the character of the town.

“But I’ve never had anybody come to me and say, ‘Boy, I hope they don’t restrict the rights of you and other property owners, cause if they do, we aren’t coming back,’.”

Other ordinance backers cited the presentations given June 1 – 2 in Door County by Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C. entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Protecting Community Character,” who said heritage tourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry today.

Several owners of buildings likely to fall under consideration for historic preservation fear the ordinance would add another layer of regulation that would prevent them from improving their properties.

Al Ashley of the C&C Supper Club said he has spent $500,000 – 700,000 on upkeep of his building over the years. He said his building would be better if torn down and rebuilt as something more modern. If not, he said, his son will be saddled with expensive repairs and problems in future years.

Some of the anti-ordinance speakers expressed concern that this effort was a knee-jerk reaction to the building of the yellow condos at Hwy 42. That project was criticized by nearly everyone who spoke at the hearing, and the room erupted in laughter when Ashley suggested they could solve the entire problem “simply by outlawing the color yellow.” Town Board member Dick Skare, however, said the ordinance grew out of the smart-growth process that began in 1998.

After an hour and a half of testimony, the hearing adjourned with residents who say they’re after the same thing but going in different directions.

The ordinance is expected to come up for consideration at the July 5 meeting of the Gibraltar Town Board. The Historic Character Preservation Ordinance for the Town of Gibraltar can be viewed at