Not All Historic Districts Are Created Equal: National Register, Local Districts Offer Different Levels Of Protection

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

Chatham's Old Village National Historic Register District was the result of a grassroots effort by neighborhood residents. TIM WOOD PHOTO

The recent failure of efforts to establish a National Historic Register District in the Stage Harbor Road area in Chatham and talk about establishing a historic district in Orleans raised questions about the benefits of historic districts, exactly what they protect and how to go about establishing one.

There are dozens of historic districts Cape-wide. There are two main types of historic district: National Register Districts, established under the National Register of Historic Places, a federal designation administered by the National Park Service; and local historic districts, are administered at the local level and established through a process set down Chapter 40C of the Massachusetts General Laws.

“Many of the towns have one of each, if not more,” said Sarah Korjeff, historic preservation specialist with the Cape Cod Commission.

There's also a third type of historic district which is established through a separate act of the legislature, a short of niche district. The Chatham Historic Business District is an example, as is the Old King's Highway Historic District that runs along Route 6A from Sandwich to Orleans. Both have a specific purpose – in Chatham's case it was to protect the character of downtown – and were created before Chapter 40C districts were common.

The Old King's Highway district is the only historic district in Orleans. Harwich has a single local historic district in Harwich Center. Chatham has two districts aside from the HBDC – the Old Village National Historic District and the Marconi-RCA Wireless Receiving Station National Historic District.

There are plenty of areas and structures in the three towns, and throughout the Cape, that aren't protected by historic districts. According to the Cape Cod Commission, of the 411 buildings in Chatham that are 100 years old or older, 273 are protected by a historic designation. In Harwich, only 42 of its 317 pre-1917 buildings are protected. Orleans has 317 buildings that are more than 100 years old, and only 59 are protected. The figures apply to buildings that have been inventoried by the Massachusetts Cultural Resources Information System (Chatham recently updated its town-wide inventory). Cape-wide, more than 40 percent of the inventoried structures are not protected.

While local historic commissions have the authority to review demolitions and major changes to historically significant buildings that are 75 years or older, not all have the tools that are available in Chatham and Harwich, chiefly the ability to impose a demolition delay of a year to 18 months. Demolition or substantial changes to the exterior of structures within National Historic Districts are automatically referred to the Cape Cod Commission, which has the authority to prevent the loss of historic buildings.

But a local historic district, such as Harwich's, actually provides greater protection to historic buildings, Korjeff said. Local historic district commissions have the authority to review any exterior changes to a structure that are visible from a public way.

“That's the strongest amount of protection you can get for historic properties in Massachusetts,” Korjeff said. In Falmouth, a number of special legislation historic districts were transferred to local historic districts because there was greater control, she added.

Chapter 40C's intent was to preserve and protect distinctive characteristics of buildings and places significant to the history of the state and its towns and cities; to maintain and improve the settings of those buildings and places; and to encourage new designs that are compatible with existing buildings in a district.

Historic districts are not intended to freeze a neighborhood or area in time. “The intent is to make changes and additions harmonious, and prevent the intrusion of incongruous elements that might detract from the aesthetic and historic value of the district,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Towns can exclude certain elements from review, such as paint color and doors. “The purpose of a local historic district,” the commission states, “is not to halt growth, but to allow for thoughtful consideration of change.”

To establish a local historic district, a town must establish a study committee, which develops a report on the historical resources within the district, maps the boundary and determines rules and regulations. After a public hearing, a bylaw establishing the district goes to town meeting for a vote. The first local historic districts were created on Beacon Hill and in Nantucket in 1955. There are more than 200 local historic districts in the state, and a couple dozen on the Cape.

A National Register District provides less protection and requires the assent of property owners within a district, not town meeting. Listing on the National Register requires that a district meet at least one of these criteria: be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to history; be associated with the lives of significant historical figures; embody distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction; or would yield information significant in history or prehistory.

A group of residents or a town agency can nominate a National Register District to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which determines if an area is eligible. A majority of property owners must be in favor of the designation. If so, a state review board approves a nomination which is sent to the National Park Service.

Benefits of a National Register District include recognition of historical significance, limited protection from federal projects, tax incentives for income-producing properties, and grants for rehabilitation.

Beyond the local historic commission's authority, there's no additional regulatory review of buildings in a National Register District, except, as noted, that full demolitions automatically go before the Cape Cod Commission. If state or federal funds are used or state or federal permits are required to alter a building in a National Register District, the Massachusetts Historical Commission will review the project. We saw that happen with the Mitchell River Drawbridge in Chatham.

The Chatham Historic Commission's recent effort to have the Stage Harbor Road area nominated as a National Historic District shows the pitfalls of the process. While the state historic commission determined the area was eligible for listing, a majority of property owners rejected the proposal, some out of concerns that it would impact the value of their property.

There's evidence, however, that historic preservation has a positive economic impact. According to a 2002 study by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the annual direct economic benefit of historic preservation, which the study states is “calculated conservatively,” includes $2.3 billion in spending on rehabilitation of historic structures, while heritage tourism brings in another $2.5 million. That's a combined $4.8 billion, which in 2018 dollars is equal to about $6.5 billion.

Enlisting the backing of property owners is key, said Korjeff. Chatham's Old Village received its designation after residents of the neighborhood worked for several years at gaining support from most property owners. Part of the reason that worked was that the National Register District did not have the same – some would say draconian – consequences of a local district.

It appears as if efforts to establish a National Register District in South Chatham may follow the Old Village model, with more residents backing the plan than those in the Stage Harbor area. A similar effort is underway in West Harwich, where residents are talking about creating a “Captains' Row” district along Route 28.

“The best supported historic districts have been ones where property owners are interested in establishing a district,” Korjeff said.