[10 on Tuesday] 10 Steps to Establish a Local Historic District

Posted on: December 11th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi 2 Comments

Today’s local preservationists are big-picture thinkers. They’re not looking only at landmarks; they’re also thinking about their community’s whole environment, development history, sustainability, and politics. And one great way to protect a place’s history, culture, and values is to establish a local historic district.

As you might remember learning from our National Register toolkit, simply listing important places on the federal register isn’t enough to prevent demolition. In fact, most legal power to protect historic places rests chiefly with local government.

So what is a local historic district, and what does it do? A local historic district is an entire area or group of historic structures deemed significant to the city's cultural fabric that are protected by public review. This can include downtown commercial areas, main streets, waterfront districts, and residential districts.

Most often, communities create local districts to prevent unregulated and insensitive change. The main tool is the preservation ordinance, a local statute that provisions for designating historic resources, establishes a design review board (also called a preservation or historic district commission), and creates a design review process and guidelines.

Establishing a local historic district has many different components, but this week’s toolkit introduces you to the overall process and gives you a sense of what’s required to get started. We’ll dive deeper into related topics in the months ahead.

Alamo Square Historic District in San Francisco.

With that in mind, here’s a broad roadmap to follow when considering establishing a local historic district in your neck of the woods:

1. Consider the whole package. Whatever the goal for your community, keep in mind that historic district status is simply one tool to protect community character and should be used in combination with other planning and revitalization strategies.

2. Recognize the district’s associative value and economic advantages. Keeping buildings, sites, and objects around for future generations to appreciate is one of the deepest justifications for historic preservation. In addition, well-preserved and revitalized historic districts can give an older area an economic boost.

3. Make a compelling case. Clearly articulate the benefits of creating a local historic district to government officials. More importantly, help property owners fully understand what designation will mean for them, since their property use will in some ways be restricted. Robust presentations and discussions upfront can minimize controversy later.

4. Form a broad-based task force. Bring together community members who are hard workers, civic-minded, supportive, and willing to learn. Get the local governing body to pass a resolution officially recognizing the task force. The group then becomes the primary driver for creating the local district, and may even position some of its members as candidates for appointment to the preservation commission.

5. Launch a public awareness campaign. Begin early to build public and political support. Creating a district will affect and interest a wide range of citizens, so target your outreach to diverse groups, including elected officials, media, the business community, religious leaders, and schoolchildren. Make sure your education materials are clear, concise, and easy-to-understand.

6. Ally with a local nonprofit preservation organization or historical society. These types of groups are often the most logical to coordinate district supporters’ activities. They can help educate constituents, organize lobbying efforts for preservation legislation, conduct historic resource surveys (see next tip), poll residents, provide staff assistance, and more.

Historic district in Tucson, AZ.

7. Identify and gather information on your community’s historic resources. This step, captured in a historic resource survey, produces a working inventory of sites and structures that informs judgment about where, what size, and how many historic district designations should be made.

8. Set the district boundary lines. Consider the relationship between natural and man-made features; how does that relationship inform the district’s character? Analyzing the potential district in this way then guides decisions around setting appropriate boundaries, and takes into account a variety of historical, visual, physical, political, and socioeconomic factors.

9. Go through the design review process. A compulsory or mandatory design review program is most common, and requires property owners to follow established design review guidelines (just as they’re required to follow building and fire codes, for example). Sometimes the guidelines are advisory and incentive-based, while other times communities follow a combined approach to make regulations and ordinances more palatable.

10. Keep educating even after historic district designation occurs. The most effective community education programs are continuous, and it’s especially important that the people who purchase property in a historic district know they’re subject to restrictions. Some ways to do this include: educating real estate agents, adding district status to real estate listings, mailing designation notices and commission information with the annual tax or water bills, and forming neighborhood association “welcome committees” to share guidelines.

To get more information regarding the planning process within your community, or simply more community history and reference material, we suggest contacting:

  • The local planning, community development, or city manager’s office
  • A downtown development agency, Main Street project manager, merchant or neighborhood association
  • Nonprofit preservation organization or historical society
  • Public library or university collection

And as always, your state historic preservation office (SHPO) -- especially the Certified Local Government (CLG) program coordinator -- is an excellent source for complete preservation assistance.

Clearly this list only starts to scratch the surface, so we’ll be presenting more toolkits over the next few months on a variety of related topics, including historic district criteria, basic elements of a preservation ordinance, and more info on the difference between local and national registers.

What else are you interested in learning about local historic districts?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

10 on Tuesday, Revitalization, Tools

2 Responses

  1. Meagan

    December 11, 2012

    In organizing a big community initiative to list an Olmsted neighborhood on the National Register, our biggest obstacle (and opportunity) was education. In this case, it was that the district was NOT a local district, simply because of the fear of restrictions of private property. So right on, #2-5.

    To add to Julia’s great list; I suggest getting home owners in other local districts to speak at your community meetings as a way to deter those concerns about private property.

    In response to #7-9, hire a local preservation consultant or business to do the official resources survey, research and boundary distinctions. It aids in the validity of your district and supports the restoration economy, oh and, it’s kind of hard to do and people go to school for it!

    Lastly, #10, the City of Rochester, NY sends out postcards to all homeowners in historic districts annually! Great idea, if its not the city doing it, do it through the local pres non-profit or drop the postcards in mail boxes as a community group. Because people forget they’re in a district and housing turn-over. (You’d be surprised how many people buy houses in historic districts without knowing it!)

  2. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    December 12, 2012

    Great comments and additions, Meagan! Always helpful to hear from someone who’s actively doing it in the field.