Most houses that are deemed historic are part of a neighborhood that has been declared an historic district – most homeowners are clear on that much. Where it gets confusing is that there are two kinds of historic districts, each with their own rules and benefits, and they can overlap or stand alone. If you have heard that you live in an historic district, the first step is to figure out what kind of district it is – then you can move forward with knowledge of the potential carrots and sticks that may effect you.
Local Historic Districts – Created by a municipality’s planning department, a Local Historic District is a zoning overlay that gives a local commission the ability to regulate changes to the exterior of all the buildings in that district. Often summed up as ‘all stick and no carrot,’ local districts help the homeowners by making sure that all of the neighbors follow agreed-upon guidelines when they alter the exterior of their homes. While some people dislike the idea of being told what they can or can’t do to their house, most of the time the Historic Preservation Commission works very hard to come to a consensus with a homeowner on a given project – and it prevents your neighbors from messing up their houses too much!
The benefits of being in a local historic district boil down to knowing that your property value will not be adversely effected by, say, a nearby house being torn down and replaced with over-sized infill. Similarly, an empty lot in the neighborhood cannot be filled in by an incompatible apartment tower. The preservation commission can also act as an advocate for a neighborhood if a planning issue comes up on the fringes of the district, in ways that are impossible unless local designation is in place.
National Historic Districts – More common than local districts, a national historic district is administered by the National Park Service and the federal government. More carrot than stick, it does offer some protection to a listed neighborhood or house if a federally-funded project would alter the area (often referred to in shorthand as ‘section 106‘) but does not give any rules that must be followed to the average homeowner.
The important carrot associated with the national districts are the preservation tax credits. These credits are intended to help the owner of an historic property make the right choices when it is time to update or repair the structure, and have helped fund many of the more notable preservation projects in North Carolina. Please see Financial Benefits for more information about tax credits.
Recent map of Durham historic districts (pdf).