Planning and Implementing a Local Historic District

Last Updated: February 25, 2021

Creating a local historic district can preserve neighborhood character and improve property values in older neighborhoods where many older homes still have most of their original architectural integrity, at least on the exterior. Of course a commercial, civic, or entertainment district also can be considered historical, as well as a park, ship, and many other types of features. Here we focus on districts.

lovely row of frame houses more than 50 years old

At last count, there were at least 2,300 such designations within the U.S. Most countries have some version of the listed properties idea. Usually most of a neighborhood in the U.S. must be at least 50 years old for consideration, although local standards could require fewer or more years.

Other nations may have vastly different criteria for what is considered a listed property or historic district.

For most of us the term local historic district might conjure up an image of grand Painted Ladies in San Francisco or the Garden District in New Orleans. Many others think that if they entertain the idea of a local district, they are headed for the red tape of an historic review commission or nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. We will explain all that in a minute.

A local historic district may not be grand or beautiful, but may still qualify as long as it is mostly true to a particular historical period and largely intact.

Nor does a local historic district need to contain any residential structures at all, but since we're in the housing section, we'll concentrate on that possibility.

The rules are usually almost identical whether the buildings are commercial, industrial, institutional, or residential. Since residential areas may have more individual buildings and owners, they present the most challenging local historic district to form.

Should You Choose Becoming a Local, State, or National Historic District?

A critical concept to master in contemplating a local historic district in your town or in your immediate neighborhood is that while usually you would begin with local, an historic designation may occur at the national or state level in addition to or instead of the local level.

Since the national level is the most famous, we will consider it first. Contrary to your expectation, the federal designation is actually the least restrictive on current property owners.

In fact unless federal dollars are to used for a project in the district, there is absolutely no restriction on property owners. A federal highway (and almost all highways use some federal money) cannot be built through the middle of your historic district.

But in general you have all of the glory and none of the obligations of state or local districts. Of course not everything nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, as the official federal listing of places deserving preservation for historic reasons is called, is selected.

The National Park Service, which falls within the Department of Interior, administers the National Register process. Not only buildings and districts, but also sites (such as the Gettysburg Battlefield), structures (such as the Golden Gate Bridge), and objects can be named to the register.

Architectural and cultural importance and integrity, rather than simply what most of us think of as history, also are considered when National Register nominations are evaluated.

Since this page specifically deals with local historic districts, or state or national equivalents, it's important to understand the discussion you will hear about "contributing" and "non-contributing" buildings. This has nothing to do with charitable donations!

It means that some buildings "contribute" to the historic, cultural, or architectural atmosphere for which the district is being recognized, and other buildings that are not as historic, or as culturally or architecturally relevant, are neutral or negative to the district.

Often when a nomination is denied, the comment will be that the percentage of non-contributing buildings is too high.

State-designated historic districts may be quite similar to the federal designation, both in their ease or difficulty of attainment and also in the low level of restrictions placed on property owners.

However, in some states, rigid obedience to guidelines and design standards may be required after a district is designated. Each state has its own State Historic Preservation Officer, so search for yours on-line and learn what requirements and benefits are relevant to your state.

The local historic district may in fact be the most restrictive of the three. Usually this is a municipal designation, although some counties may be in that business as well.

Partly the strictness may occur because local preservationists tend to go overboard in their enthusiasm, and partly this is only an appropriate reflection of the local government's authority to govern land use, enact a property maintenance code, and adopt zoning and other forms of regulating urban design.

So if you think for a moment, you'll realize that a local historic district may be the most difficult to create. Certainly any local opposition is situated close to the action and can protest loudly. And the implications for local land use regulation may be too imminent.

Benefits of a Local Historic District

The benefits of a local historic district fall into four categories, each of which is discussed below.

1. A district designation helps attract the investment, public sector funding, and publicity that will lead to preservation of an area with a distinctive history, architecture, or cultural overtone. Without the enactment of a local district ordinance requiring compliance with design guidelines, you're going to have an occasional property owner lapse into bad judgment.

Some owners may just be ignorant of what is appropriate, and others deliberately want to flaunt tradition in favor of their own need for convenience, comfort, or extravagance.

Preservation can be just plain fun and interesting. Digging into the history of your area and even your individual residence may provide some stories worth repeating to your own children, or maybe you'll find buried treasure under a floorboard.

Often people who purchase homes in historic areas want to "do the right thing," but they may not be sure what that is. Living in the midst of a community consciously wrestling with the same issues, problems, and goals can be very helpful.

In addition, a local historic district is a living museum of a particular era, and if some interpretation of the meaning and conventions of the era are provided, it can become an educational asset for the next generation.

2. Buying into a local historic district with some meaningful but not overly restrictive standards usually is a good investment. A study of six towns in South Carolina showed that property values increased meaningfully as a result of a historic designation.

Perhaps this appreciation in value would happen in any district of somewhat uniform architecture where design guidelines prevent the worst of the "remuddlings," but that's really beside the point. When a neighborhood is more than 50 years old, it's a remarkable achievement to have relative architectural integrity and cohesiveness.

3. Individual buildings and those located within in a district listed on the National Register are eligible for federal tax credits for rehabilitation work. States often add their own tax credits, so sometimes up to 40% of your restoration or rehabilitation costs on the exterior of your building can be government-reimbursed.

If you intend to take advantage of tax credits, be quite careful when you plan your work. In particular, be aware that the federal "Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation" (36 CFR 67) might not reward or penalize the same types of alterations as your state or local historic tax credits.

So when you have more than one level of government financial incentive at stake, consult an expert or two.

4. When you establish a formally recognized local historic district with some meaningful guidelines, you will prevent certain architectural and design atrocities.

Specifically inappropriate building alterations, such as removal of all that Victorian gingerbread that makes your neighborhood distinctive, would be prohibited. At the other end of the spectrum, making your Sears-Roebuck purchased house kit into a Georgian colonial also will be prohibited.

Fake history retrofits will be highly discouraged, and out-of-character buildings shouldn't be added as infill. Who wants to see a 1950s California ranch among the one-and-a half-story cottages, or vice versa? Even worse, sometimes a builder even wants to build two or three blocks of up-to-the-minute homes among the cottages. With good design regulations, you can anticipate the possible impact of technological and building material advances on historic structures. For an example of what can occur, see the visitor question and our answer on the topic of cellular antennas on historic buildings. While you're looking around, also anticipate the visual impact of small cell technology.

For a good resource on why a historic home might make sense for someone you're trying to convince, see the all-around national historic preservation organization, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Disadvantages of Creating a Local District

Most local ordinances provide for an architectural or heritage design review process. Almost always a municipality that passes an ordinance setting up a local historic district will appoint a committee or board separate from the governing body or the planning commission to oversee decision making about the historic district or districts.

Usually the historic review commission puts some teeth into the historic district legislation, rather than simply awarding a plaque.

This is where the problem starts. Home and business owners will think they are being regulated too harshly. Sometimes local ordinances permit the historic review commission or any other historic preservation group to nominate properties or a district for the historic designation. Usually an individual property owner or group of property owners also may apply on their own behalf.

A local ordinance may define exterior alterations quite broadly. We all acknowledge that changing the exterior material, exterior finish, location, and dimensions and proportions of windows, doors, roofs, and porches constitute an exterior alteration.

But in some locations, changing of the pavement material of a driveway, cutting down a tree, or planting a significant new landscape all may be deemed exterior alterations.

If the local historic preservation ordinance is weak in its powers, historic districts might deteriorate in their integrity despite the designation. Writing a historic preservation ordinance is best undertaken by someone experienced in careful housing renovation of historic buildings in a particular community.

Then make sure your municipal attorney, or better yet, an attorney with a specialty in historic preservation and knowledge of your state's court interpretations, does a thorough review of the proposed ordinance. 

They should be looking for loopholes and especially for a poor definitions section that might allow a provision to be overturned by a higher court on the grounds of unconstitutionally vague regulation. If you use a specialist, make sure your municipal attorney is on board and not making fun of the design guidelines behind your back.

Another important point about the historic preservation legislation is that it should uphold the commission's presumably greater understanding of historic building types and context, and make it difficult for a city council or other elected body to overturn their decisions.

Otherwise almost every decision becomes subject to appeal, and therefore to political influence.

Of course, a new historic preservation commission, and new members of the commission, must receive careful orientation to their task, their legal powers, the matters over which they have no legal authority, and the seriousness of their duties.

Establishing a good relationship with the city council, city staff members, and even the planning commission is very important.

The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions supports commission members with educational offerings.

If your local government is quite interested in historic preservation, you can apply to be a Certified Local Government (CLG), which brings the credibility of being associated with national standards. Ask your state historic preservation officer about this. To some extent following CLG recommendations may help protect local governments from lawsuits.

Design Regulations for Your Historic Area

It would be repetitive with many other resources to tell you what your design regulations or design standards should say. Standards should be based on general sound urban design principles. Then comes consideration of a specific historic period.  See also our general commentary on best practices for local design guidelines.

Begin with the grand-daddy of all the historic preservation standards for rehabilitating a historic structure, the Secretary of the Interior's revamped standards.  Instead of becoming simpler, these standards seem to have been divided into smaller topics that can seem more complex at first glance. In brief, at the gateway page for the Secretary of the Interior standards on historic standards,  you will find several sets of standards, including one for archeology and historic preservation, a needed set of architectural and engineering documentation, a guideline for historic vessel preservation, three sets for historic preservation, a guideline for historic vessel preservation, three sets for suggestions that you better follow if you want any kind of tax breaks for rehabilitating historic buildings, and standards they call treatment of historic properties and cultural landscapes.

You can find the standards and much other helpful information through the Historic Preservation Tax Incentives site. 

Then if you want to become more restrictive locally, consult reference material specific to the era of your prospective local historic district, and become familiar with that era's architectural styles and conventions, as well as the typical landscape and orientation of buildings toward the street.

You could work with a local historic preservation consultant or expert, or find an architect strong in architectural history.

Relationship of Historic Districts to Neighborhood Integrity

Many historic areas already will have established a strong neighborhood association that works with stakeholders to tout the joys of the neighborhood and with property owners to address any problems that arise quickly and effectively. Some will have strong homeowners associations that have been working together to maintain common grounds and recreational facilities for many years.

In a few instances though, you might be trying to set up an historic district where no neighborhood organization exists. In that instance we urge you to consider starting a neighborhood association to deal with broad array of issues; it's a strong auxiliary effort to preservation.  Our ebook on how to do this supplies abundant information.

Do Some Additional Reading on Related Topics

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Housing Issues
  4.  › Local Historic District

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