Saturday, July 21, 2012

Seeking Approval: How to get the green light for work on an historic structure

What does it mean when someone says "historic restoration" or "historic preservation?"  Or, for that matter, "historic?"  What does it mean when we say that a building or neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places?  Can the government tell you what you can and cannot do with your house or building?  This article will help answer those questions and more giving you the information needed to successfully negotiate the historic restoration approval process.  We've all heard about buildings and neighborhoods on the "National Register," but what does that mean?

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is the United States government's official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation. A property listed in the National Register, or located within a National Register Historic District, may qualify for tax incentives derived from the total value of expenses incurred preserving the property.  The passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966 established the National Register and the process for adding properties to it. Of the more than one million properties on the National Register, 80,000 are listed individually. The rest are contributing resources within historic districts. Each year approximately 30,000 properties are added to the National Register as part of districts or by individual listings.

For most of its history the National Register has been administered by the National Park Service (NPS), an agency within the United States Department of the Interior. Its goals are to help property owners and interest groups, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, coordinate, identify, and protect historic sites in the United States. While National Register listings are mostly symbolic, their recognition of significance provides some financial incentive to owners of listed properties. Protection of the property is not guaranteed. During the nomination process, the property is evaluated in terms of the four criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Oversight for these buildings is managed at the local level.  Historic District Commissions, Preservation Committees and similarly titled municipal entities are empowered to govern and permit (or deny) private citizens' work on such buildings IF legislation exists that empowers them to do so.  In other words, a house that is on the National Register but NOT in a local historic district, or in an area where the local laws do NOT exist to protect the structure, is not protected.  The decision making process is guided by The Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties.  The Secretary's Guidelines categorizes the rehabilitation of historic structures under four headings.  They are listed below in order of most desirable treatment to least:

Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property's form as it has evolved over time;
Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property's historic character,
Restoration is undertaken to depict a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods; and,
Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.

Choosing the most appropriate treatment for a building requires careful decision-making about a building's historical significance, as well taking into account a number of other considerations:

IMPORTANCE   Is the building a nationally significant resource? Did an important event take place in it?

CONDITION   What is the existing condition of the building prior to work?

BUILDING USE   Will the building be used as it was historically or will it be given a new use?
BUILDING CODE   Regardless of the treatment, code requirements will need to be taken into consideration.

The Historic District Commission exists to help preserve the heritage of the region's built environment.  Assuming that these standards are followed, and that details and elements of the structure's envelope are to be preserved (or replaced "in kind"), approval should granted.  Thoughtful consideration of the process used to approve or reject proposed actions before making application will increase the likelihood of your plan being approved. 

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