Information about Local Historic Districts for Local Governments
Historic Area Zoning Ordinances are among the most powerful tools available to local governments to preserve historic places and protect their community’s character. Individual buildings and districts may be designated as historic by counties and municipalities as part of their planning and zoning authority. While these properties may also be listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, local designations are made solely by the local government (i.e. City/Town Council, County Commissioners/Council).
Owners of properties that are locally designated must receive approval from their local Historic District/Preservation Commission before making alterations to the exterior of all buildings on their property (including garages, sheds, and outbuildings), and for new construction within designated districts.
This page is designed to provide local government officials, Preservation Commission members, and staff with information about laws and regulations, design guidelines, funding sources, and other pertinent resources.
For more information or assistance, please contact Elizabeth Hughes at (410) 514-7604.
NOTE: Information presented on this page does not constitute legal advice. All jurisdictions are advised to consult with their legal counsel on matters related to authority and other matters.
- What are the differences between the National Register of Historic Places and local historic districts/landmarks?
- Why Are Local Historic Districts Important and How Do they Benefit My Community?
- What financial incentives are available to owners of historic properties?
- What is the legal basis for local Historic Preservation Commissions in Maryland?
- Scope of Authority
- Why do local Historic Preservation/District Commissions need to review changes to historic properties?
- What are Historic Preservation Commissions allowed to review?
- What Standards and Guidelines do Commissions use during their review?
- How are Commission decisions enforced?
- How can MHT help our Commission?
What are the differences between the National Register of Historic Places and local historic districts/landmarks?
One of the historic preservation issues that often causes the most confusion is the difference between different types of historic designations and what those designations mean for individual property owners.
There are two basic types of historic designations – National Register of Historic Places and local designation.
What types of properties may be listed?
Individual buildings, districts, structures (such as bridges), objects (statues, monuments), and sites (usually archeological sites)
Generally - Individual buildings, districts, structures (such as bridges), objects (statues, monuments), and sites (usually archeological sites). Maryland law allows local governments to designate all of these types of properties, but some local ordinances may not include all of these categories.
What makes a property eligible for designation?
Properties must be historically significant at the local, state, or national level for one of the following reasons: associated with important events or broad patterns of history; associated with the life of a significant person; representative of a type or style of architecture, or the work of a master; or have the ability to yield new information (generally for archeological sites).
Properties must also possess integrity – the physical features that convey the property’s significance.
Varies by jurisdiction. Local governments may define their own criteria for determining significance. Generally these criteria are similar to the National Register criteria. Certified Local Governments must have criteria that are substantially similar to the National Register criteria.
Some local governments use integrity to determine eligibility, but most do not.
Who decides if a property is designated?
MHT reviews all National Register nominations and submits them to the Governor’s Consulting Committee on the National Register (GCC) for review. If the GCC approves the nomination, then MHT sends the nomination to the National Park Service, which has final decision making authority.
The local Historic Preservation/District Commission reviews designation applications/nominations and makes a recommendation to the elected body. In some communities the Planning Commission also reviews designation materials. Because designation is a zoning action only the governing body (Council/Commissioners) has the legal authority to designate properties as historic.
Do I need to get permission to make changes to my property?
No. Listing in the National Register does not restrict individual property owners from making changes to the interior or exterior of their properties UNLESS they are utilizing State or Federal funds, permits, or other assistance as part of their project OR are receiving State or Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits.
Yes. Owners of locally designated properties must receive approval from their local Historic Preservation Commission for changes to the exterior of their properties OR if they are building a new building in a local historic district.
Historic Area Zoning ordinances in Maryland are adopted by local governments to:
- Safeguard the heritage of the local jurisdiction by preserving sites, structures, or districts which reflect elements of cultural, social, economic, political, archeological, or architectural history;
- Stabilize and improve the property values of those sites, structures, or districts;
- Foster civic beauty;
- Strengthen the local economy;
- Promote the preservation and appreciation of those sites, structures, and districts for the education and welfare of each local jurisdiction
(Article 66B, Section 8.01(c), Annotated Code of Maryland)
In addition to the public purposes outlined in the state enabling legislation, Historic Area Zoning ordnances can help local governments achieve other goals and outcomes, such as:
Preserving Community Character
Like other types of zoning, local historic districts are important tools for managing growth and development in a community. For many people, the character of their community – the design, size, scale of the buildings, the streetscape or the rural setting, and the stories and history of those buildings and spaces - helps to make their town or region a desirable and attractive place to live. Local historic area zoning is a tool for preserving this character and maintaining a community's unique identity and history and helping to stabilize and revitalize distressed communities.
Local historic area zoning is not intended to "freeze" places in time or permanently restrict property owners from altering their properties. Instead historic area zoning is a tool for managing the rate of change in a community, both to individual buildings and on a larger community-wide scale. This is particularly true in historic districts where historic area zoning allows a jurisdiction to review and restrict demolition of designated properties, and to review and approve new construction within the boundaries of the designated district. These review powers help to ensure that historically significant properties are not demolished without adequate consideration of the impacts on the broader community, and to ensure that new construction is compatible with the scale, massing, materials, etc. of the surrounding environment.
Owners of locally-designated historic properties may be eligible for a variety of financial incentives, including Federal, State, or local tax credits, loans, or grants. Generally these incentives are available only when an owner undertakes a rehabilitation project, and the availability of the programs varies based upon the use of the building, whether the owner is non-profit or for-profit, and whether the building is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Owners of locally designated properties, including homeowners, may be eligible for Maryland State Income Tax Credits for qualified rehabilitation work over $5,000 if a property is individually eligible or located in a local historic district that the Maryland Historical Trust has determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
In Maryland historic designation is a type of zoning overlay and is a power granted to municipalities and counties by the General Assembly. Historic preservation is considered to be a public benefit and is based upon the government’s power to regulate private property as part of its police powers.
Local governments may designate properties as historic if they have enacted a historic area zoning ordinance that complies with the applicable state enabling legislation. Most cities, towns, and counties are “non-charter” jurisdictions, meaning that historic area zoning ordinances must follow Article 66B, §§8.01 – 8.17, Annotated Code of Maryland. Charter Counties (such as Baltimore County, Harford County, etc.) follow Article 25A §5(BB), Annotated Code of Maryland, and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties follow Article 28 §8-101 as their state enabling legislation.
State enabling legislation sets certain guidelines and requirements for local preservation commissions, including criteria for membership on the commission, the types of changes that commissions can and must review, standards of judgment for reviewing projects, and requirements for guidelines and procedures, among other things. While jurisdictions can make their requirements more strict than the enabling legislation calls for, they may not make their requirements less strict.
Scope of Authority
Historic Preservation/District Commissions are both granted certain powers and are limited in their authority by state law. While different communities are governed by different enabling legislation, MHT advises all communities to have ordinances and guidelines that are substantially similar to the requirements of Article 66B, §8.01-8.17, Annotated Code of Maryland.
Designating Historic Properties
The designation of individual properties and districts as historic is fundamentally a zoning power and may only be made by a local governing body (i.e. Mayor/Council) through adoption of an ordinance. The designation ordinance should include findings that describe the historic, architectural, or archeological significance of the property, the boundaries of the property, and reference the applicable ordinance or section of the local code that allows the Council to make the designation and review alterations to those properties.
Why do local Historic Preservation/District Commissions need to review changes to historic properties?
Historic preservation practice in the United States -including Federal, State, and local laws, regulations, and financial incentive programs - is based upon the principles of historical significance and material integrity. Properties may be historically significant for a variety of reasons (determined by the application of objective criteria), but must ultimately be able to convey their significance through their location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.
Preserving Historic Fabric
Preservation standards and guidelines favor retaining and repairing existing historic materials, (even if it's not the original material) over replacement with new materials. When replacement is necessary, the new materials should be similar in design, texture, scale, massing, and where possible, materials. Design review conducted by local historic preservation commissions is intended to ensure that the existing historic fabric that helps to make that building historically significant is retained and repaired whenever possible and that replacement materials are appropriate for the building's age, significance, and design.
In addition to considering issues related to appearance and aesthetics, design review also considers the compatibility of proposed changes with other materials and with a building's environment. Older and historic buildings are frequently constructed of materials that are different than those we use today and were built with a variety of use and environmental considerations in mind. Using certain materials on a historic building, or altering some elements of a building's design or structure can have negative effects on a building's lifespan and may do unintentional damage to a property
A good example is the type of mortar used on historic brick buildings:
Bricks made in the 18th and early 19th centuries were generally made by hand and tend to be soft on the inside with only a thin skin on the outside. Most are quite strong and will be extremely durable if maintained properly. However, historic bricks also tend to expand and contract with changes in temperature and moisture and require soft mortars around them to accommodate these changes. Most new mortars, including portland-based cements, are too hard when they dry and don't allow the bricks to expand and contract, causing the surface of the bricks to pop off and exposing the soft interiors. These bricks then need to be completely replaced, which is often more costly than using a traditional mortar from the outset, and can sometimes lead to very serious problems with the building. The most appropriate mortars for historic brick buildings are traditional lime-based mortars that are soft enough to allow a brick to change with time and moisture.
Design review by a preservation commission can help property owners understand the importance of using the right materials, such as mortar, on their historic buildings, both to make sure the appearance is historically appropriate, but also to help ensure the longevity and lifespan of the materials and the building as a whole.
Generally speaking, Historic Preservation Commissions are only permitted to review alterations to the exteriors of existing buildings and new construction. Commissions have the authority to review changes to all parts of a building, including the side and rear elevations, if any portion of a building is visible OR intended to be visible from a public way (Art. 66B, Section 8.05(a), Annotated Code of Maryland).
In reviewing applications, commissions consider:
- The historic archeological, or architectural significance of the site or structure and its relationship to the historic, archeological, or architectural significance of the surrounding area;
- the relationship of the exterior architectural features of the structure to the remainder of the structure and to the surrounding area;
- the general compatibility of exterior design, scale, proportion, arrangement, texture, and materials proposed to be used; and
- any other factors, including aesthetics, which the historic district commission or historic preservation commission considers pertinent.
In Baltimore City, the Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) is permitted to designate and conduct design review on significant, publicly accessible interior spaces.
Historic Preservation Commissions may review alterations such as (not an exhaustive list):
- replacing or repairing windows, doors, siding, and roofs
- repointing brick and stone masonry
- painting previously unpainted surfaces (such as bricks)
- repairing, replacing, or constructing porches, fences, sheds, garages, etc.
- construction of additions, changes to the roofline, and all new construction
- alterations to significant landscape features
Historic Preservation Commissions are permitted to define "routine maintenance" activities and exempt them from review. Typically these include things such as: painting previously painted surfaces, small scale repairs to windows, siding, doors, etc., changes to hardware, gardening and basic landscaping activities.
Additionally, if Commissions have professional staff assisting in their reviews, they may choose to identify work items that can be reviewed and approved administratively rather than going before a commission hearing. Typically, these are activities such as repointing (allowing the staff to review and approve mortar selection), certain types of repairs (reglazing, in-kind replacement of railings, etc.).
In addition to an ordinance, Historic Preservation Commissions are required to have two basic documents to guide their decision making:
- Rules of Procedure (Article 66B, Section 8.11, Annotated Code of Maryland)
- Design Guidelines based upon the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties ((Article 66B, Section 8.06, Annotated Code of Maryland and 36CFR, Part 68)
Most historic preservation commissions in Maryland have created and adopted design guidelines that are tailored to the buildings in their communities and that provide specific guidance on appropriate and inappropriate treatments for historic buildings and new construction. Some communities rely on the Secretary of the Interior's Standards as their guidelines, but all commissions must base their decisions on their locally adopted guidelines.
Local governments may apply for Non-Capital or Certified Local Government grant funds to hire a consultant to develop design guidelines, or to print and destribute guidelines documents. Please contact Elizabeth Hughes at (410) 514-7604 for more information on how to prepare design guidelines for your community.
The review process is generally linked to the issuance of building permits in a jurisdiction, but the Historic Preservation Commission may also review some work that doesn't require local building permits. According to state law, jurisdictions may not issue building permits for alterations to locally designated historic properties before the Historic Preservation Commission has reviewed the application.
The decisions of Historic Preservation Commissions are generally equivalent to zoning decisions made by Zoning Administrators or Planning Boards (non-conforming use, building code violations), and violations of those decisions are punishable in the same manner. In some communities that could mean a small fine or revocation of a permit, and in some jurisdictions, it could mean substantial fines for each day the violation continues and/or imprisonment. State law generally classifies zoning violations as civil infractions, but local governments have the authority to set their own penalties and fines.
All applicants who feel the decision of a Historic Preservation Commission who believe they were treated unfairly or are aggrieved by a Commission decision have the right to appeal. Because local historic designation is a zoning classification, appeals are generally heard by the same body that hears zoning appeals or Planning Board appeals. In some communities this is the Board of Zoning Appeals, and in others appeals are heard by the Circuit Court for that County.
The Maryland Historical Trust can provide a variety of technical assistance to local Historic Preservation Commissions and to jurisdictions who are considering starting a Commission. MHT can provide the following forms of assistance:
- Ordinance review and policy analysis
- Design Guideline Review and assistance in preparing guidelines
- Survey and designation
- Training and Continuing Education
MHT will provide opinions on specific applications and project-specific design review questions on a limited basis. Please contact Elizabeth Hughes at (410) 514-7604 for more information.
The National Park Service has a wide variety of technical resources for property owners including Preservation Briefs, Online Education Tools, Checklists, and other resources.
The Maryland Historical Trust staff can also provide technical assistance for projects involving tax credits, loans, and grants and with questions about historic preservation commissions, laws, regulations, and general guidelines.
The Maryland Historical Trust also maintains a Consultant Directory. Please note that consultants and contractors included in the Directory are self-identified and MHT does not specifically endorse their work or qualifications. You are encouraged to identify and seek out references for all contractors prior to engaging their services.
This page updated: October 9, 2012
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- National Alliance of Preservation Commissions
- Preservation Maryland
- Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions
- Main Street Maryland
- National Main Street Center