Historic Districts: National Register vs. Local Designation

single-meta-cal May 10, 2018

May is National Historic Preservation Month, and we’re celebrating with weekly posts on City Blog, Facebook Live content, special events and more. 

There is a common misconception that being located in a historic district equals never being allowed to modify your property. In reality, there are a variety of factors that can impact your historic property ownership.

There are two distinct types of historic district designation that are important to understand:

National Register of Historic Places Historic District

Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district is a substantial achievement. It is the first step towards officially recognizing and documenting the valuable historic resources in your neighborhood. This designation also fosters name recognition and ownership pride within the community.

Before your neighborhood can become a National Register historic district, representatives from the Alabama Historical Commission will be invited to visit Huntsville and conduct a basic survey of the area to determine its eligibility. If your neighborhood has been determined eligible, the consent of at least 51% of property owners will be required before it can be pursued. With collaboration from neighborhood residents, the City of Huntsville, and the Alabama Historical Commission, a qualified consultant will be hired to complete a neighborhood survey, documentation and evaluation of contributing status for each property and complete the National Register nomination forms. Once completed, the nomination will go through a rigorous review process before a decision is made.

Although districts listed on the National Register have been deemed historically significant and worthy of preservation, this designation is primarily an honorary title. National Register designation does not prevent a private owner from altering or even demolishing their property. The only way National Register eligibility or listing can provide protection is if a federally funded project has the potential to negatively impact that property. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that federal agencies look for ways to mitigate the impact they may have on historically significant properties.

The majority of Huntsville’s National Register historic districts do not come under design review from the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission (HHPC) because they are not locally designated. This list includes the Dallas Mill Village, Lowe Mill Village, Lincoln Mill Village, and Merrimack Mill Village Historic Districts.

If you live in one of the National Register districts listed above, there are no design review regulations to impact alterations you wish to make to your property. This is often met with a sigh of relief from property owners, but freedom to alter your property as you please is a double-edged sword. While some owners can be trusted to make wise decisions that increase the value of their property and the surrounding neighborhood, others do not use good judgment. If used correctly, design guidelines will protect owners’ investments as well as historic properties from inappropriate changes.

Locally Designated Historic District

Historic districts must first be listed on the National Register of Historic Places before they can be locally designated. This ensures that all locally designated districts have been property evaluated and vetted for their historic significance. To become a local historic district, 60% or more of property owners must agree to the designation. This can be a difficult task if the majority of the neighborhood is not in favor of coming under design review.

Twickenham, Old Town, and Five Points are all National Register historic districts that have requested and been granted local designation. This designation has protected these significant neighborhoods for decades. Huntsville’s design review process follows the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The overall goal of these guidelines is not to prevent homeowners from making changes to their properties. The purpose of design review is to ensure any changes are sensitive to the historic character of each property as well as how that property relates to the surrounding neighborhood.

Currently, there are historic neighborhoods in other parts of the city that are facing an epidemic of tear-downs and inappropriately scaled and designed new construction. Without a historic district designation and some level of regulation, there is little the HHPC can do to offer solutions. With each loss of original historic fabric, these historic neighborhoods come closer to the tipping point at which they will no longer be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Local designation and design review may not be the answer for all of Huntsville’s historic districts, but it has provided a way to monitor and protect Huntsville’s built environment.

Any historic neighborhood resident that has questions about National Register listing and local designation is welcome to contact me any time at (256) 650-4779 or katherine.stamps@huntsvilleal.gov.