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Historic District Commissions: What Are They? What Do They Do?

Like Historic Landmarks Commissions, Historic Districts Commissions draw their authority from the police power of local government. The essential purpose of Historic Districts Commissions is to recommend the designation of collections of historic elements in the man-made or built environment as historic districts by the local governing board that has zoning jurisdiction over same and, once an area is designated as a historic district, to administer design review over the properties contained therein to protect their historic character. Currently, there are six local historic districts in Mecklenburg County. They are: Wesley Heights, Fourth Ward, Dilworth, Plaza-Midwood, Elizabeth, and downtown Davidson. All but the downtown Davidson Historic District are administered by the Charlotte Historic Districts Commission, which was created in 1975 and is housed in the offices of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission on the 8th floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. For information on the Charlotte Historic Districts Commission contact John Rogers or Wanda Birmingham at 336-2302. Information about the Davidson Historic District can be obtained by calling Tim Keane at the Davidson Town Hall at 892-7591.

It is essential that you understand the differences between a local historic district and a National Register historic district. Local historic districts are much more powerful and afford far greater protection than do historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Specifically, no material alterations to the exteriors of properties (including yards and signs) that contribute to the significance of a historic district can be made without the owner having first obtained a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Commission, regardless of the source of funding. Furthermore, the Historic District Commission may delay the demolition of all or any part of a contributing element in a historic district for up to 365 days. There are no historic regulations over changes to the interiors of buildings in historic districts if the results of such changes cannot be seen from the street. Most historic districts are composed principally of buildings, either commercial or residential. However, State Law permits archaeological sites or rural landscapes, for example, to qualify for historic district designation. The fundamental requirement is that the district, regardless of the nature of its contributing elements, possess historical significance. It is not the primary purpose of Historic Districts Commissions to revitalize or stabilize neighborhoods or to attract tourists. It is the primary purpose of Historic District Commissions to provide protection for collections of physical resources that possess enduring and demonstrated historic value. Each Historic District Commission develops its own design review guidelines so that they can be tailored to fit the needs of each specific community and historic district. In Charlotte, for example, the Historic Districts Commission does not administer design over elements of properties that are unobservable from the street. The best advice would be for you to contact the Historic District Commission that has responsibility for the district in which a specific property is located and ask the staff to send you a copy of the design review guidelines for that particular district.