[Preservation Tips & Tools] How to Designate a Historic Place in Your Community

Posted on: July 29th, 2014 by Cassie Keener

If you’ve ever wondered how a place becomes designated as historic, then you should know about historic preservation ordinances and what they can do for you. And whether you’re requesting historic designation or permission to make changes to a historic property, your local historic commission is the administrative body that can help.

In today’s toolkit, we’re answering key questions about ordinances and commissions so you can participate with confidence in this community-based, community-driven process.

What is a historic preservation ordinance?

Local historic preservation ordinances are the primary laws that communities implement to protect and preserve historic resources. These laws protect individual sites and areas, and they offer the strongest form of legal protection for historic properties. Each ordinance is tailored to fit the needs that best suit the individual community.

What is a historic commission?

Creating a historic preservation ordinance establishes the historic preservation commission. The commissions are the local governing bodies for all things preservation; they review ordinances, designation proposals, and requests to alter, move, or demolish historic properties.

Appointed by a mayor or legislative body, commissions are made up of members who have expertise and interest relevant to historic preservation. The commissions then rule by majority vote.

How do I request historic designation?

Because each ordinance is site-specific, it’s difficult to summarize a “one size fits all” process, so we’re offering a general process in this toolkit, plus a site-specific, real-world example.

Historic designations (especially on the local level) are one of the best forms of legal protection a historic place can have. A place’s owner, a preservation organization, or a member of the community who values the resource usually initiates the application for historic designation.

When nominating a historic property, applicants should first review the historic preservation ordinance in the area. It will explain the criteria for a property to be designated as historic, as well as the review process.

Applicants should then prepare a well-researched argument for the commission to review at a public hearing, where they will give their recommendations and/or approval for designations.

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The Gamble House in Pasadena, California, is a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.

Example: Pasadena, California

Let’s take a look at the historic preservation ordinance in the city of Pasadena, California, to see an ordinance and commission at work.

Criteria for the designation of historic resources

Pasadena’s ordinance defines the criteria for historic monuments, landmarks, historic signs, landmark trees, and landmark districts. For a resource in to be designated as a historic monument there, it must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • The resource must be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history on a regional, state, or federal level.
  • The resource must be associated with the lives of persons who are significant in history on a regional, state, or federal level.
  • The resource is an exceptional embodiment of the distinctive characteristics that represents a significant historic time, architecture style, or property type.
  • The resource has provided or will likely provide important insight to the history of the region, state, or nation.

Application process for historic designation

Once you’ve figured out the necessary criteria, the application process can begin. Pasadena’s ordinance outlines the application process for historic designation into six steps.

  1. An application should be submitted by the owner of the property, a member of the Council, a member of the historic preservation commission or an interested member of the community.
  2. If the applicant is not the owner, the director (of the commission) will notify the owner in writing within 10 days that an application for designation has been submitted.
  3. The director will determine within 30 days of the submitted request if the application is complete and eligible for historic designation, and will notify the applicant in writing if the property is eligible or not.
  4. If the director determines the property is not eligible, the applicant may appeal their case to the historic preservation commission and the case will be reviewed at a public hearing.
  5. If the director determines the property is eligible, they will prepare a designation report within 45 days establishing that the property has met the necessary criteria and schedule a public hearing in front of the historic preservation commission.
  6. If the nominated resource is a historic monument or landmark, the application should include a map with boundaries of the proposed designation as well as a legal description. If the nominated resource is a historic sign or landmark tree, the application should include a legal description of the property that the sign or tree is on.

Review process for historic designation

After the application process is complete, the Pasadena ordinance outlines the review process as well and breaks it down into three steps.

Note: As mentioned before, each ordinance and commission is unique. For the city of Pasadena, certain members of the commission have different responsibilities. For example, the director oversees the application, the historic preservation commission offers recommendations, and the council approves/disapproves the designation.

  • The historic preservation commission reviews the application and report at a public hearing, and offers its recommendation to the council.
  • After receiving the recommendation from the commission, the city clerk will schedule a public hearing in front of the council within 60 days.
  • The council will approve or disapprove of the nominated resource at a public hearing.

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The historic designation sign for the Pawtucket Public Library in Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Currently, there are over 2,300 historic preservation ordinances all over the country that are similar in many respects, but unique in local context. Chances are good there’s a historic preservation commission in your area. Remember: These laws offer some of the strongest protection to historic places, so they’re definitely worth investigating if you believe a historic place is threatened.

Have you sought historic designation in the past? Offer some tips in the comments below. (Also check out our toolkit series on local historic districts for related info.)

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.

Cassie Keener

Cassie Keener

Cassie Keener is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She enjoys writing, spending time outdoors, and is a movie and music enthusiast.

Preservation Tips & Tools, Tools