How Is a Local Historic District Effectively Administered?

Updated

One of the most important questions frequently at the center of successful commission decisions is how the board decides what "appropriate" essentially means.  Relevant professional disciplines (i.e. architecture, law, history) are not always available for representation on local review commissions, but taking advantage their expertise is valuable whenever possible.  A particularly important device that promotes consistency and uniformity is the design guidelines, which spell out clearly the changes appropriate for various historic resource types and also set standards for new construction.  These guidelines aid the commission in determining what is appropriate.  They also guide developers and property owners.  Effective administration is critical for the successful implementation and execution of design guidelines; without it, the most carefully framed guidelines can be resented.   Success in the review process is influenced by the quality of its administration, characterized by timeliness, good communication, clear design guidelines, consistent review procedures, and well-explained, documented decisions involving four groups:

·  The Review Board:  Ideally, members of the review board will be knowledgeable about and committed to architecture, preservation, planning, community development, real estate, law, and other related fields.  A general knowledge of the area is also beneficial.

·  Staff:  While the division of labor between board members and municipal staff varies greatly, staff is often shared with municipal agencies such as the planning department or building inspector.  Staff members conduct the bulk of review work, acting as a critical aid to efficient and expedited decision making.

·  Applicants:  Having a clearly defined review process in place is a key element to working with applicants effectively.  There should be schedules for submission, review, assessment, and public hearings, with simple, clear submission forms that list required attachments.  Early dialogue between review boards and applicants is recommended.

·  The Public:  Without public support, design guidelines will certainly fail, so this group is the most important and maintaining good relations with the public must be a top priority of successful design review boards.  This goal can be achieved through education and publication programs providing clear, concise explanations of design review guidelines.

Many commissions make decisions based on The Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitations.  Though a good starting foundation, they rarely provide adequate guidance by themselves for non-professional commissioners and owners who are not familiar with basic preservation and design principles and many commissions supplement them with guidelines developed internally or by a consultant.  Ultimately, the effectiveness of a local historic district commission and its design review guidelines is determined by how well its decisions are enforced and its ability to stand strong against legal challenges.  The design review authority should be acknowledged as a legitimate component of the community's regulatory structure, and both municipal staff and elected officials must aggressively enforce provisions of the preservation ordinance, even if unpopular.