February 5, 2013

10 Basic Elements of a Preservation Ordinance

If you’ve been following along through our toolkit series on establishing a local historic district, you know that your community should develop a task force; understand and communicate the benefits of historic district designation; and decide on where the boundary lines should be set to ensure you keep the “local” in your local historic district.

Next, you’ll need to develop the legislation -- a preservation ordinance -- to protect the historic resources in your community.

A preservation ordinance is a local statute enacted to protect buildings and neighborhoods from destruction or insensitive rehabilitation. It also establishes a design review board (known as the preservation commission) and process, which are critical for securing historic district designation.

Developing a preservation ordinance demonstrates the willingness of a community to recognize, invest in, and protect its historic character. And while every community’s ordinance should be written to meet the specific needs of the area, each should have these 10 basic components:

1. Statement of purpose. Clearly state the ordinance’s public purpose. Although historic preservation on its own is a legitimate goal, many jurisdictions have found it politically and legally necessary to link historic preservation to broader community objectives.

2. Definitions. Include easy-to-understand explanations for technical terms to avoid confusion over concepts that might not be easily understood.

3. Creation of a preservation commission. Spell out the commission’s position within government, the number of members, member qualifications, their terms of office, and the number of members required for a quorum.

4. Powers and duties of the commission. Write out everything the preservation commission will have the authority to do. Also outline the nature of the commission’s decisions, whether required or recommended.

5. Criteria for designating historic properties (districts and landmarks). Establish objective and relevant criteria for designating districts and landmarks. In many cases, local governments have used similar criteria to those used for listing in the National Register.

Tip: Although a few ordinances have required owner consent as a provision for local designation, this practice is generally not advised. Owner consent provisions are tantamount to allowing people to pick and choose which laws they wish to follow.

6. Procedures for historic landmark and district designation. Explain who can nominate properties for designation; how and when affected property owners are notified; how many public hearings there are; who must approve designations; and what the timetable for these actions is.

7. Procedures and standards for reviewing alterations and demolitions. Articulate what types of changes are subject to review by the commission. In addition, fully explain the standards, guidelines, and process of review.

8. How and when to determine economic hardship. This portion of the ordinance is its “safety valve.” It sets forth the process and criteria to be used in determining whether an ordinance imposes an economic hardship on an owner.

Dedication of a historical marker at the site of the former Lemon Street school in Marietta, Georgia.

9. Penalties. Ordinances must be enforced to be effective. Penalties can range from fines to incarceration.

10. Appeal process. Most ordinances spell out a process for appealing decisions rendered by the commission or governing body. An appeals provision helps ensure that a citizen’s right to due process is not diminished.

Communities seeking to establish historic preservation ordinances should consult their city attorney before proceeding because, while authority to enact such laws exist in every state, individual differences necessitate general legal oversight.

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