City and county officials are overhauling the review criteria for local historic landmarks and districts, which will affect future alterations on buildings, homes and vacant lots in some of Durham County’s oldest neighborhoods.
The changes seek to clarify and consolidate the criteria and make the process more consistent and predictable, said Lisa Miller, a senior urban designer with the City-County Planning Department.
The changes also seek to provide more specific guidance to the Historic Preservation Commission, a nine-member board appointed by elected officials that approves exterior changes to historic structures.
In general, there are two types of local historic designations in Durham.
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▪ Historic landmarks are considered the most important structures for a variety of reasons, Miller said, including their historical, architectural significance or connection to people in the past or a representation of the area’s broad history. Examples includes West Village properties and the Erwin Mill buildings on Main Street near Ninth Street.
There are 80 historic landmarks, including three outside of the city limits, in Durham County. Federal guidelines, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, help guide changes to those entities.
▪ Local historic districts are groups of properties or neighborhoods that that represent a particular type of development, period of time or way of life. Durham’s seven local historic districts include Downtown Durham and six residential areas: Cleveland Street, Holloway Street, Fayetteville Street, Morehead Hills, Trinity Heights and Watts Hillandale. While the districts fall within neighborhoods, they are defined areas within those larger neighborhoods.
The City Council’s recognition of the districts essentially resulted in a zoning map change to create an historic overlay district and a preservation plan that details the history and architectural characteristic, and how changes can be made to those properties.
After a property is deemed to be a historic landmark or within a historic district, exterior modifications or demolition can only move forward legally after an application for a certificate of appropriateness has been approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.
The current review criteria for district and landmarks were adopted between 1987 and 2013.Over that time, Miller said, staff and Historic Preservation Commission have identified several areas in which the criteria do not provide clear direction, including work in the right-of-way in historic districts and how to handle vacant lots and newer or significantly modified buildings within historic districts.
Updating the review process has been in the works for years, said Joe Fitzsimons, an architect and chair of the Historic Preservation Commission.
Part of the impetus is that while the intent of the criteria for the six residential districts is essentially the same, the wording is found in different places and varies, Fitzsimons said.
Another key aspect of the proposed overhaul is a differentiation between contributing and non-contributing structures.
Contributing structures are considered representative of the period of time within a district that is historically significant. Non-contributing structures have been built after that period or have been modified significantly.
The current criteria don’t make a clear distinction for the consideration of requested changes to the two structures.
Under the proposed changes, the criteria for non-contributing structures consider bigger picture concepts, such as the scale and height of the home, placement of the door and windows and distance from the street. Contributing structures, however, face more specific criteria, such as use of materials, that seeks to preserve the historic nature of the home.
Also, vacant properties are automatically classified as non-contributing structures, under the new regulations.
Scott Harmon, a Durham architect and real estate developer, said the changes are positive.
Harmon said he appreciates the proposal’s tiered level of scrutiny, with historic landmarks receiving the most, followed by contributing structures, non-contributing structures and then vacant lots in a local historic district.
There are a lot of minor inconsistencies in the commission’s current consideration process, he said, specifically with non-contributing structures, Harmon said.
“On a good day the commission is able to navigate and move on,” he said. “But on a bad day,” if they are challenged by an owner who is determined to do something a certain way “it can bog down the process.”
With contributing structures, it is very much about preserving the actual historic structure, Harmon said.
With non-contributing structures, he said, it isn’t about making a new home look old, but ensuring it “plays well with the rest of the neighborhood.”
The City-County Planning department will be receiving feedback on the the review criteria for local historic landmarks through Friday. To review the plan and for more information go here: http://bit.ly/historicdistricts
To send feedback email Lisa Miller: firstname.lastname@example.org
Once planning staff members receive feedback, they will revise and finalize the document and move forward with the adoption process. The general timeline includes a public hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission in September or October, a public hearing before the Planning Commission in November 2015 and a public hearing before the City Council in January.