- - Thursday, June 2, 2011

When residents of a tiny section of Grant Road Northwest, just a stone’s throw from the bustle of Wisconsin Avenue, got their designation as a historic district in 2003 from the District’s Office of Planning and Historic Preservation, they celebrated with a block party. Five years later, however, when residents of Chevy Chase in the District sought a similar designation, the neighborhood erupted in an internecine battle that pitted neighbor against neighbor and ended up with the proposal being withdrawn.

The Chevy Chase neighbors are not alone. Around the Greater Washington area and across the country, proposed historic districts can be battlegrounds that bring out the worst in even the most community-minded soul.

Why the war? Historic designations can mean many things to many people, who see them either as a way to honor the past or as a mechanism to intrude into the present. The designations themselves can be confusing. What exactly is a historic district? What does it mean for a home to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places? What happens if I want to paint my front door chartreuse? Suppose I want to add a sunroom? Who decides?

The fact is, not all historic designations are created equal. Generally speaking, historic designations can happen at any one of three levels or at some combination of the three.

Designations at the federal level usually come in the form of inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the result of a stringent nomination process that includes evaluation according to a set of standards regarding the property’s architectural, historic and cultural significance. Nomination forms can run upward of 25 pages and are thoroughly researched.

“There’s an emphasis on getting history right,” said Randy Jones, spokesman for Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources.

Homeowners who achieve inclusion on the National Register may be eligible for certain tax breaks or other incentives, but they won’t have to worry about another layer of bureaucracy if they want to alter their homes in any way.

“At the national level, there are no restrictions for property owners,” said Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

So if you want to paint the front door of your National Register home chartreuse, go ahead. Of course, make too many substantial changes, and you could lose your designation and your property could be “delisted,” which happens from time to time.

The same is true at the state level, where state registers of historic properties often parallel the National Register. Many states offer rehab credits and other benefits for properties - states often call them resources - that are listed on the state’s own register of historic properties.

In Virginia, for example, the state-controlled Landmarks Register works with the National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places, to identify sites of historic and cultural significance. Both registers use the same nomination form and feature 11 separate criteria for inclusion. There are more than 2,200 National Register properties in Virginia. Of them, about “99.7 percent” are also on the Virginia Landmarks Register (VLR), Mr. Jones said.

Inclusion in the VLR, like the National Register, is “strictly voluntary,” he said.

“People can do whatever they want,” he said. “We want to keep Virginia’s tradition of property rights.”

Local designations, such as historic districts in towns and cities, are the ones that pack a regulatory punch. States, towns and cities can designate their own historic districts, which are subject to regulations. Properties may be classified as “contributing” or “noncontributing,” noting the extent to which they contribute to a neighborhood’s character and historical identity.

Alexandria’s Old Town Historic District, for example, has helped revive an aging city core while underscoring its 18th-century character. The Rockville Historic District showcases its Victorian homes, while historic districts in more rural areas can help highlight the importance of farmsteads and farm communities or the contributions of groups that have long since moved on.

While the rules differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, few, if any, go so far as to limit what color you can paint your front door, not to mention what you might want to do to your home’s interior. Still, renovations are expected to be in keeping with the home’s historical character. The general rule is, “Like follows like,” so if you are planning to replace wooden windows with something else, you may run into problems.

That’s why local governments count on grass-roots organizations, sometimes formed for that explicit purpose, to drum up support for a historic-district designation in the first place.

“Governments aren’t seeking to impose a historic district on a neighborhood,” says Steve Calcott, deputy preservation officer for the District’s Office of Planning and Historic Preservation. “We’re looking to build grass-roots support.”

The process often involves a series of presentations by preservation officials, historians hired for the process and community members themselves, who frequently are the ones to get the ball rolling. In the District, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) frequently gets involved as well.

“Several folks in Chevy Chase thought it would be useful to have a historic district,” said ANC Commissioner Allen Beach. “But there were a number of people who were concerned about how the rules would be applied.”

The latter acted quickly, mobilizing a core of opposition to the plan that grew as fast as the yard signs denouncing the project sprouted. In short, the opposition was better organized than the supporters.

“We were on the defensive,” said Dick Teare, currently treasurer of Historic Chevy Chase DC (HCCDC), a community organization that was formed in 1990 to preserve the neighborhood’s history and provide educational outreach. HCCDC was the core group that worked to put the nomination forward, even hiring an outside contractor to conduct extensive research to help determine eligibility.

After the ANC survey of homeowners within the proposed district revealed that most were opposed, the proponents withdrew the nomination.

“People were saying, ‘You are telling me exactly what I can do with my property,’ ” Mr. Beach said. “It was a question of people’s perception as to how the historic review board would view what they were doing.”

So why give a district or landmark a historic designation? Proponents of historic districts tout the benefits of the designation in terms of neighborhood character and cohesion, and they relish a chance to honor and respect the past.

Meanwhile, there is some evidence that homes in historic districts appreciate at a greater rate than those in similar neighborhoods without the designation, and in times of economic downturn don’t depreciate nearly as quickly.

Also, because historic districts are usually within settled neighborhoods, they tend to be more stable and less subject to the whims of the market.

“The primary benefit is the sense that people like the neighborhood the way it is,” Mr. Calcott said. “It’s a level of protection. The neighborhood is held to a similar standard, a sort of group covenant that says the neighborhood will stand committed.”

Opponents, however, decry the intrusion of yet another layer of bureaucracy into their already too-regulated lives. Some highlight the costs involved, noting that it is usually more expensive to maintain a home with a historic designation. They point to long-established principles regarding the sanctity of home and they insist that government intrusion into the realm of private property is unwarranted.

Preservationists often note the criticism is unwarranted as well.

“All properties are subject to some sort of regulation by code regardless of type,” said Howard Berger, acting supervisor of historic preservation for the Prince George’s County Planning Department.

For example, the county’s planning department has a policy on the use of certain kinds of siding when it comes to historic resources. Vinyl is usually a no-no, but Mr. Berger points out that the commission often is more flexible than outsiders might think.

“Additions don’t necessarily have to be made of the same material as the main building,” he said.

Meanwhile, fans of historic districts will point out that historically accurate renovations can be more durable in the long run despite being considerably more expensive in the short term.

The whole process was a bit easier on Grant Road, in part because the neighborhood is so small - just 13 properties were involved in the designation. The proposed Chevy Chase Historic District would have encompassed many more.

The District, of course, is a special case, chockablock with architecturally and culturally significant neighborhoods, dwellings and other spaces. There are 45 historic districts in the city, including 28 where people live and work. (The others include parks and cemeteries.) They range from large neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Georgetown to smaller communities like Foxhall Village, and yes, Grant Road.

The District’s Historic Preservation Review Board sets policy and reviews projects, although most of these are reviewed at the administrative level by the Historic Preservation Office, Mr. Calcott said. The statistics may belie residents’ fears of overregulation when they want to make an exterior alteration.

“In 2010 we reviewed 4,200 building permits,” Mr. Calcott said. “Of these, 98 percent were approved at the staff level.”

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