State Historic Preservation Office
Local Historic Property Designations in North Carolina:
Historic Districts and Landmarks and the
Historic Preservation Commission*

Local governments in North Carolina--counties and municipalities--can choose to take advantage of state enabling legislation (General Statutes 160A-400.1-400.14) that allows them to create historic preservation commissions and to designate local historic districts and landmarks.

In the statute, the General Assembly sets forth its finding that, "The historical heritage of our State is one of our most valued and important assets. The conservation and preservation of historic districts and landmarks stabilize and increase property values in their areas and strengthen the overall economy of the State."

What Local Designation IS and IS NOT: Local designation is conferred by a local governing board following a recommendation by its preservation commission. Commissions only exist where they have been explicitly created by the county or city, and only commissions created pursuant to state law can exercise design review over properties designated by the local governing board. However, commissions around the state are known by a few different names: historic resources and preservation commissions work with both districts and landmarks while district commissions work solely with districts, and landmark commissions work solely with landmarks.

Local designation should not be confused with listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which is a federal program administered by the state. Although some properties may carry both types of designation, the National Register and local designation are totally separate programs with different requirements and benefits. Also, local commissions should not be confused with other local historical organizations such as historical societies or museum groups.

The Preservation Commission: When a local government decides to provide for the preservation of the historical, cultural, or archaeological resources within its jurisdiction, it can pass an ordinance to create a historic preservation commission. Members of a preservation commission are selected by the local governing board from the general public. A majority of the members must demonstrate a special interest in history, architecture, archaeology, or related fields.

The Commission's Powers: A commission's primary powers are (1) recommending to the local governing board properties to be designated as historic districts and landmarks and (2) reviewing applications from owners of designated landmarks and structures in historic districts who plan to make changes to their properties. A commission's first charge is to conduct an inventory of the area's historic resources. Its other powers include conducting a public education program and acquiring historic properties.

What is Local Designation?: Landmark designations may apply to individual buildings, structures, sites, areas, or objects which are studied by the commission and judged to have historical, architectural, archaeological, or cultural value. Historic district designation may be either a type of overlay or special use zoning that applies to entire neighborhoods or other areas that include many historic properties. The zoning provides controls on the appearance of existing and proposed buildings.

The Designation Process: The designation process usually begins when a commission identifies a property or an area as a potential landmark or district. The commission studies the site and writes a local designation report which documents the site's significance. The commission normally contacts property owners during this stage to seek their cooperation and to explain the ramifications of local designation. Although seldom done, a landmark may be designated over the objection of its owner; however, owner consent is required for the designation of a privately-owned landmark's interior. Likewise, a district may be designated over the objection of property owners; state law does not provide for the designation of the interiors of properties within districts.

The Department of Cultural Resources, acting through the State Historic Preservation Officer, is given an opportunity to review and comment on the proposed designation. When the commission recommends designation, the commission and the local governing board hold a public hearing to consider the merits of the designation. The final step in the designation process is the passage of an ordinance designating the landmark or district by the local governing board.

The Benefits of Designation: Designation is an honor, indicating the community believes the property or district deserves recognition and protection. Owners of designated landmarks are eligible to apply for an annual 50 percent property tax deferral as long as the property's important historic features are maintained. Recapture penalties may apply if the owner destroys the property or damages its historic value. Unlike landmark designation, local historic district designation has no effect on local property taxes for property owners within the designated district. Historic district zoning can help to stabilize property values by maintaining the neighborhood's character, and it benefits property owners by protecting them from inappropriate changes made by other owners that might destroy the special qualities of the neighborhood.

The Requirements of Designation: Owners of local landmarks and of property in local historic districts are required to obtain certificates of appropriateness from their preservation commission before making significant changes or additions to a property, before beginning new construction, or before demolishing or relocating a property. The commission's review of proposed changes ensures that work on a property in a district or on landmark is appropriate to the special character of the district or landmark. Commissions adopt design guidelines as the criteria to judge what changes are appropriate. Property owners also use the design guidelines to plan possible projects, and to discuss their applications with the commission.

Melinda Coleman
Preservation Commission Services Coordinator and Certified Local Government Coordinator
Survey and Planning Branch
4618 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-4618
Telephone (919) 733-6545

Commissions are usually staffed by a member by the city or county planning department. If your county or municipality has a commission, your local planning department will be another source of information.

* Reproduced for the City of Washington Department of Planning and Development Website
from the revision of this document posted at:
on the State Historic Preservation Office Website as of 12/11/01.
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