How Historic Districts Work

Local Historic Districts

Skagway, Alaska's historic district, includes buildings from the gold rush era.
Skagway, Alaska's historic district, includes buildings from the gold rush era.
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Local historic districts do not have to meet the exact same guidelines as a national historic district. Many cities use guidelines similar to the national ones but also allow for some leniency in determining what is significant to the community and how best to take care of it.

Creating a local historic district requires two things. The first is a local preservation ordinance, which is the legislation that provides the rules for how historic resources will be identified and preserved, and the second is a historic preservation commission. These commissions may go by different names in different states, but their general mission is to identify local historic districts and ensure that growth takes place appropriately within them. Members of these commissions are usually citizens of the town, often appointed by the city councils.

To continue with our fictional example from the previous page, the bossy neighbor of Mollytown, Mrs. E., contacts the historic preservation commission to let them know about the historic qualifications of the neighborhood. The commission prepares a report for the local elected officials, detailing the district's significance, the boundaries and each property address within the district.

The commission must then hold public hearings with ample notification for all property owners in the district. Local historic districts require tremendous community support, so Mrs. E. rallies all her friends with monstrous drawings of what Mollytown might look like without proper oversight. Her neighbor shows up and complains that the houses in Mollytown are too small to be left unaltered. After considering public input, the commission makes a recommendation to the local officials, who may adopt, alter or reject the historic designation.

Local historic districts carry rules about how a property appears, and this is what largely differentiates national from local historic districts. Homeowners in a national historic district are not bound by any commitment as to how their property will look or by any rules that govern future home repair.

By consenting to a local historic district, Mollytown's residents are agreeing to follow a set of local regulations that govern new building in the area. The regulations are enforced by the historic preservation commission in a process known as local design review. The local design guidelines govern any building in the area, which is why historic district status is sometimes aimed at keeping condo developers and big box superstores out of the neighborhood. New buildings must usually incorporate a certain style or compatible exterior, which prevents a lot of different-looking buildings from trying to crowd into the same space. Already existing houses have to follow certain rules as well; this is the facet that would most interest Mrs. E. in controlling her construction-happy neighbor. These rules may relate to all exterior features including windows, doors, rooflines, paint colors and materials used to conduct repairs.

There can be a lot of benefits to local design review. The guidelines require better upkeep of homes and yards, which may increase home values. In 2005, researchers found that home values in historic districts in Memphis, Tenn. rose 14 percent to 23 percent higher than homes in non-historic areas [source: Munoz]. They can also lead to an increased sense of neighborhood pride and feeling of community, and historic districts might drive tourism dollars into the community.

When local design is working for you, by ensuring that the next-door neighbors keep their home looking nice, review can be a great feature. When the regulations seem to be working against you, because you can't do what you want to your own house…well, that's when historic districts get troublesome. On the next page, we'll leave Mollytown behind and find out why some people don't want to live in historic districts.