The City of Madison is facing a lawsuit over a bird-safe glass ordinance. The policy, adopted last fall, is designed to prevent birds from flying into large buildings and other glass structures.
The lawsuit is being brought by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) on behalf of five real estate and developer interest groups. The suit was filed in Dane County circuit court earlier this morning.
WILL Deputy Counsel Lucas Vebber says that, when the city adopted the new building policy, it violated Wisconsin’s uniform building code. Adopted by the state in 2014, the code sets building standards for municipalities across the state — removing hurdles for developers.
“This was done just to give some certainty to developers everywhere, and to ensure the law doesn’t have this patchwork of building codes throughout the state of Wisconsin — which can be cumbersome, costly and just all-around confusing,” Vebber tells WORT.
The ordinance requires certain buildings over 10,000 square feet to use glass that dissuades bird collisions. It also applies to skyways and certain other glass structures. The policy passed the city’s common council unanimously in August 2020 and went into effect in October.
Assistant City Attorney John Strange says that the ordinance doesn’t violate the uniform building code, since bird-safe glass is created by augmenting building materials — not altering state building standards.
“The city’s bird-safe glass ordinance does not set a construction standard,” Strange says. “Builders can use exactly the same windows prescribed by the building code. It just requires treatment of those windows if the developer chooses to construct a facade with a certain percentage of windows. Because it regulates materials and not standards, we don’t think it’s preempted by the state’s building code.”
WILL warned the city in March that it would sue if the ordinance was not changed.
Speaking with WORT back in March, Bryan Lenz — the glass collision program manager for the American Bird Conservancy — said that glass collisions kill up to one billion birds annually in the United States.
“And that’s a huge number,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are ten to twenty billion birds in the U.S. in a given year. So we’re talking about a huge source of mortality for birds. And it’s one that everybody can do something about. It doesn’t cost a lot. And really, who wants to live in a building that kills birds?”
Matt Reetz is the Executive Director of the Madison Audubon Society. He says that glass collisions kill upwards of 10,000 birds in Madison each year.
Says Reetz: “Our data suggest that — because Madison is such a beautiful place with lots of natural elements — that there’s probably tens of thousands of birds colliding with windows and dying every year in Madison alone. There’s a huge impact on migrating populations of birds when they come through the city.”
Reetz says that striking down the ordinance could set a precedent, barring other Wisconsin communities from enacting similar bird-safe building policies.
“Losing the ordinance really sets a bad precedent,” he says. “It really hampers the ability of other places around Wisconsin to enact similar legislation that would benefit their birds and their communities.”
But Vebber says the impact to Madison’s birds isn’t at play in this legal battle.
“This case isn’t about birds, it’s about the proper process for adopting building code standards,” Vebber says. “Our clients certainly have nothing against birds here, this is just about the proper lawful process for which government entities adopt building code standards.”
WILL is also currently suing the City of Madison over its selection of members to a newly-formed police civilian oversight board.
Feature photo of glass windows on the Capitol Square. Credit Chali Pittman/WORT News.