[10 on Tuesday] 10 Ways to Keep the "Local" in a Local Historic District

Posted on: January 29th, 2013 by Sarah Heffern 2 Comments

Over the past several weeks we’ve covered several aspects of creating local historic districts, including deciding to establish a local historic district, considering where its boundaries should be, and getting community buy-in. This week, we’re looking at keeping the local in your historic district, because districts are not a one-size-fits-all solution.

1. Think beyond your buildings. The most successful historic districts take the streetscape and surrounding landscape into account. Aiken, SC, for example, uses its historic district to not only manage the built environment, but also to maintain the community’s pastoral quality -- with even certain trees designated as landmarks.

2. Consider your local zoning regulations. Historic districts work best when they are hand-in-hand with supportive land use and zoning laws. To achieve this balance -- and avoid an incompatible big-box store in your historic downtown -- it may be necessary to amend local zoning.

3. Look for signs. That is, consider the signage in and adjacent to your proposed historic district. Is it of appropriate size and design for the area? And more importantly, are there any unusual “signs” -- like murals or neon -- that might not fit current design guidelines but should be protected as part of the character of the neighborhood?

Aiken, SC. Photo courtesy carlfbagge, Flickr.

4. Make your community greener. When crafting historic district guidelines, keep in mind conservation measures (awnings, windows, insulation) and energy generation (wind and solar). Don’t focus on current technologies -- they will change -- but rather on broad sustainability principles and on creating positive outcomes for both property owners and the environment.

5. Keep an eye on local government. Government land and buildings can often fall within the boundaries of a local historic district, but sometimes the final ordinances exempt them from historic district regulations. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s worth thinking about -- and codifying -- how your local government’s actions will be reviewed.

6. Go inside. While most historic districts focus on the exterior of buildings, some communities -- including Boston, Seattle, New York City, and Asheville, NC -- also include some regulation of interiors for significant public spaces, like hotel lobbies or banks. Does your community have any “signature” spaces? If so, consider including them.

7. Plan ahead for resistance, part one. Even if you have done an excellent job getting buy-in, there will likely be a handful of people who object to their property being in a historic district -- some of whom could be willing to demolish or alter their building to get out of it. A technique to combat this is to put a moratorium on permits in areas where historic designation has been initiated, but not yet approved.

Tip: Be sure to comply with all relevant laws and follow proper procedures if you go down this path. Failure to do so could violate property owners’ rights to due process under the law.

Raleigh, NC. Photo courtesy Universal Pops, Flickr.

8. Plan ahead for resistance, part two. On occasion, property owners will show their displeasure with a historic district by allowing their building to fall into disrepair to the point where it becomes a safety hazard and needs to be demolished. This is referred to as “demolition by neglect” and can be managed in your historic district guidelines with a minimum maintenance requirement. A good example is the city of San Francisco, which has explicit language around this requirement.

9. Take an alternative approach. Community-generated “conservation districts” -- areas which have less-stringent regulations than a traditional historic district and are accompanied with tax incentives and other inducements -- are growing in popularity and may be a better fit for your historic areas.

10. Don’t overburden your historic district commissioners. Creating a district involves a great deal of effort and requires broad collaboration within the community. But the skills that creating a district requires are not necessarily the same as maintaining the district, getting funding, etc. Be sure to continue working with the local government, nonprofits, and other organizations once the district is established.

Have you worked on creating a historic district? What other accommodations did you make to maintain local character?

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.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the National Trust's social media strategist. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.

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2 Responses

  1. David Peterse

    February 4, 2013

    I am the City Planner for Farmington, Utah. In our community an Historic Resource (i.e. an A or B structure, etc.) may be on a 1) local historic site list or on a 2) local register. If on #2 such resources are very difficult to demolish, but if on #1 they may be demolished upon obtaining a permit from the building department. We are considering an ordinance that would make both types equally difficult to demolish. Is it very common for municipalities to make non-register structures difficult to demolish?

  2. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    February 6, 2013

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your question. I checked in with our Forum Reference Desk team and they had the following info to share:

    “There are a number of municipalities that create and enforce various mechanisms that impede demolition of any structure – listed or not. Preservation ordinances are not the only mechanisms cities employ to impede demolition; other tools used include transfer of development rights programs, neighborhood conservation districts, form-based codes, or simply increasing the demolition and permitting fees – reflecting true costs of demo. These other tools are particularly important in encouraging reuse of existing, rather than historic resources.

    Though this is somewhat general information for a city planner, he might want to take a look at our local preservation laws/preservation ordinances page (http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/law-and-policy/legal-resources/understanding-preservation-law/local-law/) and this toolkit (http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/smart-growth/additional-resources/toolkit_citizens.pdf) for some specific examples of preservation ordinances and how they vary.”

    I hope that helps! Let us know if you have additional questions.

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor