Reprinted from the November/December 1996 Old House Journal

In a local historic district, town officials decide what homeowners can do to their old houses. This means folks can’t necessarily add on as the family grows or alter the facade to their tastes. It means red tape. All of this can worry homeowners planning additions, and even cause epidemic anxiety in neighborhoods going to the polls to vote on a new historic district ordinance. Relax. The reality is that historic districting creates an amenable situation for homeowners sensitive to the goals of preservation. If you’re concerned with things like neighborhood integrity, living in a historic district should be painless, especially since regulation is usually limited to maintaining the original exterior as seen from the street. District newcomers just need a dose of information to cure their worry.

Neighborhood Preservation

Though historic districts are as varied as they are numerous, they share the goal of maintaining the neighborhood’s architectural character, whether it’s a colonial era village center or a 1910 working-class block. Regulations protect the buildings’ original appearance and the district’s historic culture. Early agricultural land may continue as a working farm, or an old Main Street may remain commercial.

Regulations can block, or at least delay, demolition of a building or a wing. Some unscrupulous property owners try to circumvent this with “demolition by neglect” – intentionally allowing an old building to fall into such disrepair that it eventually collapses or is condemned, clearing the way for a new development. To prevent this, many districts enforce a minimum maintenance requirement. Districts also limit new construction on undeveloped land and provide specific guidelines for the design of new structures.

Most commissions also regulate how old house owners can alter their buildings. This is what causes anxiety, because it apparently restricts property owner’s control. It can also potentially delay construction projects for months as meetings, hearings, site visits, and deliberations proceed.

Yet local historic districts generally limit their regulations to the house’s exterior, and usually only the facade or areas visible from the public way. The district may prohibit or limit changes in materials (such as siding and windows), changes in form (such as added dormers or garages), and removal of historic elements (such as decorative brackets, regardless of how hard they are to paint). Such alterations irreversibly destroy building fabric. Many districts require a historically appropriate paint scheme – but few actually dictate specific colors. And lots of districts do not regulate paint colors at all because they are entirely reversible. Some districts even permit vinyl siding.

The Historical Architecture Review Board

When a property owner within a district submits construction plans to the town, the historic preservation officer reviews them. Generally, the officer can approve plans that clearly abide by the district guidelines; he or she refers questionable projects to a historical architecture review board, a committee of professional designers, planners, builders, lawyers, architects, historians, or other concerned citizens.

In some cases, the board is essentially toothless. It advises homeowners, but cannot regulate building treatment. In other districts, the board consults to zoning or planning officials who hold decision-making power and may or may not abide by the district board’s wishes. Most often, the board itself must issue a certificate of approval for proposals before construction commences.

Everyday Houses

Not all historic districts are jaw-dropping examples of pristine architectural history. Such were the earliest local historic districts. And yes, because they delineate very cohesive and important environs, they tend to impose stringent controls on homeowners. These first districts were created before federal or state laws had enacted legislation to guide such policy. The city of Charleston, South Carolina, created the first districts in 1931; the Vieux Carre district in New Orleans followed in 1937.

After World War II, many historic districts were created. Some notable examples: Alexandria, Virginia, in 1946; and Beacon Hill, Boston in 1955. Then, the federal Historic Preservation Act of 1966 set out guidelines for the creation of local historic districts. (It also created the National Register of Historic Places. Often confused with local historic districts, the Register is the list of America’s most significant cultural resources. It’s primarily an honorific listing. Unless a proposed development is federally funded, listing does not protect historic properties from alteration or demolition.)

A wave of historic districts came after the Tax Reform Act of 1976, which used tax credits to foster rehabilitation of historic buildings and discourage demolition. (Much of the tax incentive has been eliminated.) The most recent districts tend to be much larger and to encompass homes of many eras and styles. These everyday districts may include hundreds of houses and buildings of less than landmark importance. And they tend to be aimed at general protection for the integrity of the building, with less stringent guidelines.

The District’s Goals

The power that a local historic district wields has a lot to do with what sort of architecture it protects. Districts can oversee landscapes, industrial buildings, wilderness, and archaeological remains. Some historic districts conserve an agricultural section of town, and might impose a right to farm law to preempt complaints by neighbors about dust, machinery notice, or other nuisances related to farming. The two main types of historic districts, though, protect commercial and residential areas and have different goals.

A historic district in a commercial area may be more concerned with economic development than period architecture. By establishing a district, the commission may become eligible to receive grant money and other pecuniary benefits. These funds can be converted to low interest loans or other financial incentives for businesses that locate within the district. The primary goal is to encourage occupation of buildings in the district, which protects the old storefronts on Main Street from new development and abandonment for suburban malls. Historic districts designed for these purposes tend to have only moderate regulations about building treatment.

More common and significant for homeowners are districts that protect the historical character of a residential neighborhood. These typically seek to maintain visual continuity. This may be accomplished by prohibiting alteration of building exteriors. In the case of a neighborhood of landmark quality residences, the restriction may be more specific. In districts consisting of upscale homes in pure and pristine architectural styles, restrictions may ban any changes to the visible areas of the exterior, extending to even paint schemes and landscaping.

The board’s decisions may be appealed through the courts or through a local process (which helps avoid legal battles and associated fees). Violations of the board’s rulings may result in fines, sometimes calculated on a hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars-a day basis. The board may also force violators to reproduce building fabric that has been destroyed.

How to Gauge the Regulations

The best resource about the historic district is the preservation officer. This staff person can answer questions about the district and help you determine the acceptability of alterations you’re considering. The officer can also refer you to the district’s guidelines, which set down in ink the goals and regulations of the district. Beyond that, determine stringency by reading minutes of past meetings and press coverage of the formation of the district or recent disputes. If there have been major conflicts, speak to the players involved.

You can learn a lot – especially in new districts where there may not be much of a public record – by taking a look at the district’s historic building survey. This inventory identifies the architectural and historic qualities of buildings that should be preserved. Read the entry about your address. It may rate the house’s significance and indicate such things as whether an early addition to the structure – say, a sagging rear porch – is considered essential.

How to Present Your Plans

Planned additions, alterations, renovations, and upgrades can be rejected for incompatibility with the building or the neighborhood. The board will consider the quality and appropriateness of the project’s design, scale, and building materials – goals most sensitive homeowners already share.

The stringency of the review depends upon the legal powers granted to the board by the ordinance, the money available for legal battles, and, as with all human endeavors, upon the personalities of current board members. Attend some meetings before your date to get a sense of the board.

Presentation is crucial. Make it clear that a historically appropriate addition or alteration is your goal, too. Anticipate questions and be prepared with answers. It’s a good idea to use a preservation architect or a consulting architectural historian. If you do, by all means bring these professionals to the commission’s hearing. Provide the board with several detailed, full-color renderings of the finished project from different perspectives, especially as it will be seen from the public way. Your obvious familiarity with the district, the style and the period of your home, the history of architecture, and with local regulations and procedures certainly helps your case.