How Is a Historic District Preservation Commission Created?


Historic District Commissions operate at the local level.  Sometimes they are referred to as the architectural review board or the historic preservation commission.  Frequently appointed by the mayor, the commissions have a range of responsibilities and powers depending upon the state and local laws.  Typically, commissions conduct town and/or county wide surveys, designate locally significant landmarks, and administer permit programs for applications to alter designated properties and construct new buildings.  Decisions to alter or demolish historic buildings are generally made at this level of government and are most affected by local zoning laws and ordinances. For more information on historic district commissions, contact the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions.  You may also call your local government for your district's contact information.

Designating Historic Resources 

Each state has a different set of statutes to guide local governments in establishing preservation commissions, but most have specific laws regarding commission composition, provisions for due process, definitions for what constitutes a local district or landmark, and exemptions and penalty provisions.  Contact your state historic preservation office (SHPO) or statewide preservation organization (refer to Page 8) to find out how your state facilitates the creation of local districts.

Writing Local Design Review Guidelines

Special care should be taken when devising a set of design guidelines, as they provide a basis for making fair decisions, consistency in design review, incentives for investment, property value enhancement, and a tool for education.  Developing a set of design review guidelines is a complex process involving a diverse array of parties.  In general, the adoption of design review guidelines should begin with identification of the community's shared preservation goals, often written and expanded in a preservation plan.  To define these goals, various relationships must be examined:  the historic structures themselves as they exist, along with the pressures for change that affect them now and have in the past.  Design review guidelines should also address elements contributing to neighborhood character, such as building use, architectural period, architectural styles, building relationships, and street features.

Design Guidelines for New Development

This area covers both additions to existing buildings and new buildings.  Additions must address how to integrate new portions with existing buildings, and to what degree historical architectural styles should be reflected.  Likewise, new buildings may also be required to incorporate a prevailing historical style, or more often to proclaim their newness but simultaneously remain unobtrusive and compatible with the historic context. A frequent criticism of design review boards is that they stile creativity in design of new or infill structures; however this is rarely the case, as most districts emphasize adherence to context and design elements rather than styles, allowing for flexible interpretation.  Such elements may include:  building height, scale, orientation, spacing, projections, roof forms, window patterns, façade proportions, entrance and porch size and proportion, materials, textures and color, and landscaping.

Historic Districts and Local Planning Issues

Historic preservation is a significant part of the overall community planning process.  Though not an integral component for the operation of local planning, historic preservation has repeatedly demonstrated the positive results of including it as an element.  Its role in combating wholesale destruction and deterring the creation of faceless planned failures is noteworthy in numerous communities, and the identification and protection process of local historic districts coupled with a landmark protection program works with other facets of the comprehensive plan to complete the best possible picture of community development.  Zoning, one of the chief components of community planning, defines areas or districts and specifies how the land can be used, and close cooperation between the zoning board and historic district commission ensures the success of a coherent community vision.