Preservation Preservation Education

PRESERVATION EDUCATION: Historic Districts Explained

April 8, 2018

We’ve received a lot of questions recently about “historic districts.” What are they, how are they designated, and what are the differences between a local historic district and a National Register Historic District? This is a complicated matter, so I’ll try to simplify it as much as possible.

What is a Historic District?

By definition, a ‘historic district’ is a group of buildings, properties, or sites that have been designated by one of several entities as historically or architecturally significant.

Buildings, structures, objects and sites within a historic district are normally divided into two categories:

Contributing and non-contributing.

Districts greatly vary in size. Some have hundreds of structures, while others have just a few. It is generally designated based on the density of historic structures.


What are the differences between ‘Local’, ‘State’ and ‘National Register’ Historic Districts?

When someone is talking about a ‘historic district’ it’s important to understand what type of district they are talking about. Some come with financial incentives, while some are regulated and protected better than others. Let me break down the differences.

National Register Historic District

If a listing is on the National Register of Historic Places, then it is a historic district acknowleged by the government.

Districts established under U.S. Federal guidelines generally begin the process of designation through a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. While designation through the National Register does offer a district or property some protections, it is only in cases where the threatening action involves the federal government. If the federal government is not involved in some form of taking, then the listing on the National Register provides the site, property or district no protections.

A federal designation is little more than recognition by the government that the resource is worthy of preservation.

National Register historic district listings, like all National Register nominations, can be rejected on the basis of owner disapproval. In the case of historic districts, a majority of owners must object in order to nullify a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. If such an objection occurred, then the nomination would become a determination of National Register eligibility only.


State Historic District

Many state governments have a listing similar to the National Register of Historic Places. State listings can have similar benefits to federal designation, such as granting qualification and tax incentives.

In addition, the district can become protected under specific state laws. The laws can be similar or different from the federal guidelines that govern the National Register.

A state listing of a historic district on a “State Register of Historic Places,” usually by the State Historic Preservation Office, can be an “honorary status,” much like the National Register. Though, according to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, all states must have a State Historic Preservation Office, not all states must have a “state historic district” designation. For example, the state of North Carolina had no such designation.


Local Historic District

Often times, a local historic district is also a National Register Historic District, but rarely is it the reverse. Local historic districts usually enjoy the greatest level of protection legally from any threats that may compromise their historic integrity because many land-use decisions are made at the local level. There are more than 2,300 local historic districts in the United States. Local historic districts can be administered at the county or on the municipal level; both entities are involved in land use decisions.

Local historic districts are identified by surveying historic resources and figuring out appropriate boundaries. (Depending on the local ordinance or state law, property owners’ permission may be required; however, all owners are to be notified and given a chance to share their opinion).

Most local historic districts are constricted by design guidelines that control changes to the properties included in the district.

Many local preservation commissions or architectural review boards adopt specific guidelines for them, and most rely on the Secretary of Interior Standards as a basis for those guidelines. For most minor changes, homeowners can consult with preservation commission staff and receive guidance on and permission for the changes. Major changes however, require homeowners to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), and the changes may be decided upon by the preservation commission or architectural review board. The COA process is carried out with all aspects of due process, with formal notification, hearings, and fair and informed decision making based on the commission’s guidelines.

Local historic district designation is a type of zoning that applies to entire neighborhoods or other areas that include many historic properties. The zoning provides controls on the appearance of existing and proposed buildings. Historic district zoning can help to improve property values by stabilizing and enhancing the neighborhood’s character, and it benefits property owners by protecting them from inappropriate changes by other owners that might destroy the special qualities of the neighborhood. Unlike landmark designations, local historic district designation has no effect on local property taxes for property owners within the designated district.

Local historic districts are most likely to generate resistance because of the restrictions they tend to place on property owners. All exterior changes to properties within the local historic district are reviewed and regulated.

The issue of local historic districts and the impact on property values is a concern to many homeowners. The effects have been extensively studied using multiple methodologies including before-and-after analysis and evaluating comparable neighborhoods with and without local designation status. As stated by economist Donovan Rypkema, “property values in local historic districts appreciate significantly faster than the market as a whole in the vast majority of cases and appreciate at rates equivalent to the market in the worst case. Simply put – historic districts enhance property values.” Equally important, local historic district property values were found to resist market downturns better than historic non-designated properties. Local historic district designation has proven to protect property values from wild fluctuations and provides stability in the housing market.

In summary, when discussing “historic districts” across the board, one must distinguish the classification of the historic district and the restrictions that district may or may not have. Each State Historic Preservation Office has this information available to the public.

Why do historic districts matter?

Knowing the type of historic district you may or may not live it means the difference between restrictions/protections and tax incentives with minimal restrictions/protections. Historic districts serve as a valuable collection of historic resources that foster a sense of civic and community pride. Often times, the most historic or important buildings in a town or city will be located within the boundaries of some form of historic district. Next time you visit a town with some history, seek these districts out and spend some time walking among the collection of historic gems!