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erupted in an internecine battle that pitted neighbor against neighbor and ended up with the proposal being withdrawn.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.
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.
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.View Entire Story
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