How Historic Districts Work

Historic District Controversy

Improvements on a historic home can get expensive.
Improvements on a historic home can get expensive.
© Tenniswood

Some homeowners don't appreciate having to apply to a higher power to make changes to their own home, but one of the jobs of a local preservation commission is issuing certificates of appropriateness (COAs) to approve work on buildings in the district. Some districts are more lenient on what requires a COA. In Georgia, for instance, neither paint color nor minor repairs with the appropriate materials require an application for a COA.

Other local ordinances may have rules on everything from your gutters to your fence, and in these districts, you may start to hear horror stories about what's allowed and not allowed. In Philadelphia, one woman's rose garden was threatened because her pergola, trellis and planter were covering the exterior of her building. Neighbors wanted her to cut down the roses, but she was eventually allowed to keep the flowers as long as the large planter boxes and latticework were removed [source: Stoiber]. In 2008, homeowners in Annapolis, Md., sued their historic preservation commission to keep columns they had installed on their front porch; the couple had used fiberglass and the commission demanded that the columns be made out of wood [source: Fuller].

Some landowners are confused about what constitutes the need for a COA, which can result in them doing work without proper documentation and risking fines, or being too scared to start the work at all. Money can also be a major concern where COAs and local design review is concerned. Using historic materials, such as wood instead of vinyl siding, is more expensive. In addition, higher property values can also bring higher property taxes, which may eventually drive up prices so that people who have historically lived in a certain neighborhood can no longer afford to do so. There is also some concern that local design review is such a favored way of managing change in a neighborhood that neighborhoods that aren't truly historic are seeking historic status [source: Hamer]. For example, a subdivision in Phoenix, Ariz. tried to form a local district because their ranch homes were the first in the city with central air conditioning [source: Munoz].

For some neighborhoods, you may be able to make the case that some homes are historically significant, but do you want to preserve them? Would you want to live in a tiny home that you couldn't change because it was historic? For these reasons, historic districts often face a long, uphill battle in gaining the public support necessary for official historic designation.

To learn more about historic districts, see the links below.

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  • "Board of Architectural Review." Historic Charleston Foundation. (March 25, 2008)
  • Choi, Amy S. "Landmarks Tough Sell in Real Estate Market." Women's Wear Daily. March 12, 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • "Frequently Asked Questions about Local Historic Districts." Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions. (March 25, 2008)
  • Fuller, Nicole. "Couple file lawsuit over porch." Baltimore Sun. March 9, 2008. (March 25, 2008) 09mar09,0,183881.story
  • Hamer, David. "Learning from the past: Historic Districts and the New Urbanism in the United States." Planning Perspectives. 2000. (March 25, 2008)
  • Heuer, Tad. "Living History: How Homeowners in a New Local Historic District Negotiate their Legal Obligations." Yale Law Journal. January 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • Holusha, John. "Home Depot Project Passes Detailed Course in History." New York Times. Aug. 11, 2004. (March 25, 2008) 8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
  • McClelland, Linda F. "How to Complete the National Register Registration Form." U.S Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1997. (March 25, 2008)
  • Munoz, Sara Schaefer. "Preserving the Tract Home: Historic Districts on the Rise." Wall Street Journal. March 16, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • National Park Service. "Working on the Past in Local Historic Districts." (March 25, 2008)
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Information Sheet #12: Historic Districts." February 2008. (March 25, 2008)
  • Shrimpton, Rebecca H., ed. "How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation." U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. 1990, revised 2002. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stauffer, Roberta Forsell. "Interior secretary approves district expansion." Montana Standard. April 27, 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • Stoiber, Julie. "Phila. Neighbors' dispute over roses is nipped in the bud." Philadelphia Inquirer. May 10, 2003. (March 25, 2008)