Money to repair culturally significant barns?
- an excerpt from Wisconsin Preservation News- Summer 2000

Recent newspaper and radio reports suggesting that there were grants available to repair historic barns led to a blizzard of phone calls and letters to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The question, "is there money to fix up my old barn?" is a good one. Unfortunately, the commercial media simplified the story.

The short answer is no and yes. And no and yes. There are no existing programs specifically designed to fund the repair of historic barns. However, there are several potential means of financial assistance available right now, and several additional means of assistance are in the process of development. It may make sense to make some critically needed repairs on your barn now, knowing that more assistance may be available shortly.

First there are tax credits. There is a federal historic preservation tax credits program that provides a credit of 20 percent of the cost of rehabilitating a historic property on your federal income taxes and a 5 percent credit on your state income taxes. This program applies to income producing properties, generally working farms. There is a state historic preservation tax credits program that provides a credit of 25 percent of the cost of rehabilitating a historic property on your state income taxes. This program applies to owner occupied residences and their significant outbuildings. Both of these programs are complex. (For details, call the Division of Historic Preservation at 608/264-6500 or e-mail to request the green information sheet titled, "Wisconsin Historic Preservation Tax Credits.")

Both of these programs are limited to properties meeting the criteria for listing on the national and state registers of historic places. To meet the criteria for listing, the properties must be architecturally distinctive such as a round barn or large stone barn, or be an exceptionally preserved example of a common farm type such as a dairy farm with nearly every outbuilding intact, or be historically important such as the first farm to employ contour plowing, or have an architecturally important farmhouse. These are hard criteria to meet and only a few farmsteads and their barns meet them.

Improved tax credits. Preservation leaders are discussing a proposed package of improved tax credits, increasing the tax credits for homeowners and businesses, making it more accessible to small main street business and creating a new tax credits for a broader range of barns described as culturally significant barns. These barns are those traditional wood and masonry barns with much of their original character. As conceived there could be a 30 percent credit on a minimum investment of $10,000. An improved tax credits program is going to become law only with a broad coalition of preservation advocates behind it.

Heritage Trust program. Governor Thompson vetoed the proposed $20 million Wisconsin Heritage Trust Program for the second time, on the advice of his lawyers who believed that it was not constitutional. However, all was not lost. Far from it. Preservation advocates around the state wrote hundreds of letters and the issue is on his desk. Governor Thompson is expected include a revised Heritage Trust program in his next budget, to be introduced in the legislature in January 2001. State funds in the Heritage Trust program would be limited to properties owned by non-profits and governments. This would assist barns such as those owned by museums and the great barns on county fair grounds. Additionally, in time, barns owned by private persons could benefit from the private funds added to an endowed permanent trust fund.

CARA, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, is advancing. It has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits action in the U.S. Senate. This bill would greatly increase the appropriation of funds generated by off-shore oil leases to preserve the nation's natural and historic resources. If supported by Senators Kohl and Feingold and their colleagues, this bill could allow the State Historical Society to create a much larger historic preservation grant program. How this bill could assist barns awaits final wording of the law and how the program is developed in Wisconsin.

Barns N.O.W! (Network of Wisconsin), our state's new membership and preservation advocacy group is proposing a grant-making foundation, modeled on a foundation for barn preservation in Iowa which has drawn significant contributions from around the country.

Regardless, stabilize your barn. Water is generally the greatest threat. If you can't afford a new roof now, consider patching the existing roof to protect the structure. Walk around the building during a heavy rain. If water is collecting by the barn, possibly a couple hours work with equipment would allow you to direct the water away from the building. If there are structural problems, it is possible that only a few days work by a skilled contractor could strengthen it to last many more years.

If all the phone calls and filled-to-capacity barn preservation workshops are any indication, many people may soon see an old barn, not as a liability, but as adding value to a property. And there may be more assistance in helping them preserve their barns. The challenge is, will your barn, or the barn you pass daily, be among those left standing in the Wisconsin landscape.

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