Department of Planning and Development
Historic Preservation Design Guidelines

Introduction to Historic District

Today, a "historic district" usually means either a locally-designated historic district or a National Register historic district. Both are useful historic preservation tools, but they are very different.

A locally-designated historic district, as the name indicates, is a district designated by a local legistlative body (city council, board of aldermen, board of county commissioners, etc.) as part of the zoning ordinance. Upon adoption of a historic district ordinance, a historic district commission is appointed, which is authorized to consider the appropriateness of any proposed changes to the exterior of any structure or to any other manmade features within the district. A certificate of appropriateness, issued by the commission, is required before any exterior portion of any building, appurtenant features (such as stone walls, fences, light fixtures, steps, and pavement), above-ground utility structures, or outdoor advertising sign may be erected, altered, restored, or moved. In the case of proposed demolition, the historic district commission is authorized to delay, for up to 365 days, the effective date of a certificate of historic district appropriateness authorizing demolition.

A National Register historic district, on the other hand, is a district listed in the National Register of Historic Places, maintained by the United States Department of the Interior and established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. National Register Districts are nominated by the State Historic Preservation Officer (in North Carolina, the Director of the Division of Archives and History), and designation gives the district limited protection from adverse effects of federally funded, licensed or assisted projects. Listing in the National Register also makes district property owners potentially eligible for Federal grants for rehabilitation or restoration and for certain Federal income tax advantages. Unlike private property owners in a locally-designated district, those in a National Register District lose no control over their properties, unless certain Federal tax provisions are applicable. A historic area may be both a locally-designated district and a National Register District.

A locally-designated district is part of a local zoning ordinance which gives a citizen commission significant controls over the actions of private and public property owners in the district. Such controls limit some individual property rights; however, they also provide useful tools to conserve North Carolina's cultural heritage and to protect property values for district property owners. Used properly and prudently, the locally-designated historic district mechanism can make a major and lasting contribution to the overall quality of the human environment in North Carolina.

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