My house is in a historic district. What should I do if I want to make changes to the exterior of my house, outbuilding, or site features (such as a fence)?
The quick answer is that any time you want to make a change to the exterior of your house or outbuildings (like replacing the roof, replacing a non-original door, or rebuilding a porch), or changing site features (like adding or replacing fences, decks, or patios) you need a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic District Commission. Minor types of work can usually be approved by staff on behalf of the commission, such as a new fence. For a new deck, you would need a commission decision. Both types of approvals (staff and commission) require that you submit an HDC Application. The fee for any staff approval is $35. Applications that go to the Commission require different fees for different types of work. For example, a deck application would be $100. More information and the application can be found here:
HDC Application Process.
Will local historic designation hurt my property values?
No. A number of states across the country, including Michigan, Texas, Georgia, Wisconsin and Virginia, have conducted studies comparing property values in a designated local historic district to the property values in a comparable non-designated district. The results are consistent. Property values never decrease in designated districts. They sometimes remain the same but more typically they increase—sometimes significantly. In the Heritage Hill Historic District in Grand Rapids, where whole blocks of the neighborhood were once slated for demolition under urban renewal, property values increased 1200% between 1974 and 2002. Local historic district designation is regarded as a protection on the investments made to properties in the district. Because reviewing work in the district stabilizes the neighborhood, historic districts become desirable locations and resale values also increase. Other benefits for local historic district designation include legal protection for historic resources, preservation tax incentives, economic development, community revitalization and diversity, availability of grants to fund projects, increased tourism revenue, local job creation and a better quality of life.
Once my house is in a designated local historic district, if I invest in my home by making improvements and my property values increase, will I have to pay more in property taxes?
No. In Michigan, Proposal A of 1994 provides for annual increases based on a consumer price index. Inclusion in a local historic district will not be reflected in the homes assessed value. In addition, under the Mathiew-Gast Act (MCL 211.27 (2)) a tax assessor can not consider any increase in the true cash value of the property resulting from normal repair, replacement or maintenance until the property is sold.
We already have a National Register Historic District, why do we need to establish a local historic district?
There are three types of historic district designations: The National Register of Historic places, the State Register of Historic Sites and local historic districts. National and State register designations are purely honorary. They do not protect historic properties from alteration or demolition. Local historic district designation is the only way to protect historic properties. This is done by adopting a historic district ordinance (in Ann Arbor this ordinance is called Chapter 103 and it can be found on this website by going back to the Preservation Home Page) and appointing a historic district commission. The commission reviews work to the exterior of a resource in a district to ensure that original historic materials are retained and that a proposed project’s design is in keeping with the massing, materials, style and time period of the house.
Can a property owner “opt out” of being included in a local historic district?
No. Michigan’s Local Historic District Act (Public Act 169 of 1970) declares historic preservation to be a public purpose. To that end, Michigan’s Attorney General issued Opinion 6919 that states a community may not enact a historic district ordinance that requires the consent of an owner before a property is included in a local historic district. Once a community decides to establish a local historic district it must follow the standards and guidelines created by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for the National Register of Historic Places. The Secretary’s guidelines for determining historic district boundaries state that boundaries are based on geography, integrity and the significance of the resource, not on political boundaries or ownership. They also state that “donut holes” can not be cut in the district to intentionally exclude properties.
How old does my property have to be to be considered historic?
Age is just one consideration when determining if a property is historic. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior has developed eligibility criteria for the National Register of Historic Places that is also used for evaluating properties in local historic districts. According to the criteria, a historic resource is typically 50 years old or older and is noteworthy for its association with a significant person or event, for its design or construction techniques and/or for its information potential. A historic resource must also retain its physical integrity that is comprised of seven qualities: materials, design, workmanship, location, setting, feeling and association.
What repairs can I do to my property that don’t require me to go before the historic district commission?
Michigan’s Local Historic District Act (PA 169 of 1970) states that the historic district commission does not review ordinary maintenance. The Act defines ordinary maintenance as “keeping a resource unimpaired and in good condition through ongoing minor intervention, undertaken from time to time, in its exterior conditions.” Ordinary maintenance does not change the external appearance of the resource except through the elimination of the usual and expected effects of weathering. For example, if your replace some rotted clapboards on the side of your house with clapboards of the same wood, width and thickness it would be ordinary maintenance. However, if you planned to remove your 20-inch diameter porch posts and replace them with 5-inch diameter posts you would be altering the appearance of the resource. That would constitute work and must be reviewed by the commission. In PA169, work is defined as “construction, addition, alternation, repair, moving, excavation or demolition.”
What is a Certificate of Appropriateness?
The historic district commission has four options when a project comes before it for review. It can table the project if more information is needed or it can issue a Certificate of Appropriateness, a Denial, or a Notice to Proceed. A Certificate of Appropriateness is a permit that states that the proposed work meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and is appropriate for the resource. A Denial means that the proposed work does not meet the Standards and is inappropriate for the style or time period of the building. A Notice to Proceed means that he work is inappropriate but the commission has found that the work is necessary to correct a public safety hazard, enable a major improvement project that will substantially benefit the community or correct an act of God or the government that has created a financial hardship for the owner.
Is work on “non-historic” resources in a local historic district reviewed by the Commission?
Yes. The commission reviews all work to the exterior of all resources in the district. A non-historic (non-contributing) resource is one that is less then 50 years old or a building that is over 50 years old that has lost its integrity. The commission applies the same standards to all resources in the district. Typically, because historic material does not exist or has been lost, when the commission reviews work on non-historic buildings it is looking at issues like size, massing and placement to determine how these affect the adjacent resources and the district overall.
Once my property is included in a local historic district, do I have to restore my house back to the way it was when it was originally built?
No. When reviewing proposed work in the local historic district, the historic district commission uses the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The Secretary has guidelines for four treatments that can be applied to historic buildings: preservation, restoration, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Rehabilitation is defined as “the process of returning a property to a state of preserving those portions and features of the property that are significant to its historic, architectural and cultural values.” The purpose of local historic district designation is to retain as much of the original historic material that existed in the district at the time it was established while still making the resource comfortable and useful for modern living. The restoration treatment, which would restore a property to the way it looked during a specified time period, applies to museum-quality projects not properties in local historic districts.
In addition, the historic district commission only reviews work that is initiated by the property owner. Unless lack of repair has led to demotion by neglect, the commission has no authority to require that any work be done to a property.
Is work on the interior of a building reviewed by the historic district commission?
No. The historic district commission only reviews work to the exterior of a resource. If the work you are doing on the interior will affect the exterior of the resource, such as closing up a window or moving a doorway, you may have to show the commission the plans for the interior work to explain why the changes are being made to the exterior. This would be viewed as supporting documentation. The historic district commission does not review interior work.
Are yard or landscape features reviewed by the HDC?
Yes. Michigan’s Local Historic District Act (PA 169 of 1970) includes open space in the definition of a historic resource. It defines open spaces as “undeveloped land, a naturally landscaped area, or a formal or man-made landscaped area that provides a connective link or a buffer between other resources.” Significant historic landscape features that the commission will review should be identified when the district is established. The could include large trees that line the streets of a subdivision, historic fences, drive and walk ways, stone walls, old shrubs that define property lines in a neighborhood, a historic garden designed by a known landscape architect, a park or green, an orchard or the farmland associated with a farmstead. The key word is significant. The commission does not review every plant or garden but it does review major historic landscape features or landscape features that have been determined to be character-defining for the district.
Can the Commission tell me what color to paint my house?
"NO" is the answer to this question! Some communities do regulate paint colors while others do not. If paint color has been documented to be a significant feature of the historic district then the commission should review it. For example, a 1910 subdivision may have had a rule that all house trim had to be painted one of five colors. Or, Henry Ford might have built a subdivision of workers’ housing in which every house was painted white with green trim. Typically, however, paint is viewed as a temporary application that does not damage original material and therefore is not regulated. It is not appropriate to regulate paint colors just to give the district a “historic” look without supporting documentation as to the significance of the paint colors. As an alternative to regulation, a commission can develop a palette of paint colors that are appropriate for the style and time period of the houses in the district and make it available to property owners.
Isn’t it more expense to preserve historic features then to replace them?
There is no “yes or no” answer to this question since it depends on the feature, its design and material. However, there are some things that a property owner can do to ensure that they are getting the best advice and best price when repairing historic features. First, it is important to get an estimate on the work from a contractor that has experience working with historic resources. Contractors without historic preservation experience typically recommend wholesale replacement of historic materials because they do not have an understanding of how they work or where to get them. Sometimes more simple solutions that are most cost-effective can be found. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s Construction Trades Council provides information on contractors with historic preservation experience. Second, it is important to find companies that manufacture features that are compatible with historic buildings at reasonable costs. Such companies can be found through the Internet or advertisements in magazines like the Old House Journal. You may not be able to walk into a chain home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s to get the material you need, though even they are beginning to carry more products for historic buildings. Third, preservation isn’t about the cheap quick fix, it is about investing in a property so that it will withstand the test of time. Investing in quality materials up front is often more cost-effective in the long run. After all, the wood windows in a historic home have probably been in service for over 100 years—and that is a pretty good return on the initial investment.
Are demolitions allowed in local historic district?
Yes. The historic district commission can issue a Notice to Proceed for demolition of a building. However, the commission must find that retaining the resource is a hazard to public safety, will deter a major improvement project of significant benefit to the public, or cause undue financial hardship to the property owner due to an action beyond the owner’s control, such as an act of God or a governmental action, created the hardship. A building can also be demolished if it is determined not to be historically significant or if it has lost its historic integrity.
Does the commission review work done on the back of a building or work that can’t be seen from the public right away?
Yes. According to Michigan’s Local Historic District Act—Public Act 169 of 1970, the commission reviews ANY work to the exterior of the building—it does not distinguish as to the location of the work.
Are there penalties for not getting a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Commission or for not doing work appropriately?
Yes. Michigan’s Local Historic District Act—Public Act 169 of 1970 enables a local unit of government to charge a maximum fine of $5,000 for inappropriate work in the district. The individual community determines the level of the fines that are imposed. The historic district commission can also require that the inappropriate work be undone or modified to meet the Secretary’s Standards. In extreme situations, the historic district commission can get a court order from the circuit court to have the inappropriate work corrected. If the property owner does not comply with the court order then the commission can have the work done and the local unit of government can charge the owner for the work or levy a special assessment against the property.
Is it possible to expand or modify a historic district or to remove one once it is created?
Yes. Section 14 of Public Act 169 of 1970, as amended, establishes the procedure for modifying a district boundary, establishing a new district or eliminating a district. It is basically the same procedure set forth in Section 3 of the Act for creating a historic district and requires that a study committee be appointed and research be conducted. If a community wants to eliminate a district then the study committee report must show how the district has lost its integrity, is no longer significant in the way it was when the district was created or that there were defective procedures in its establishment.
Our community has a historic district ordinance in place so why don’t the properties in our local historic district quality for the state preservation tax incentive?
There are a number of communities in Michigan that have passed historic district ordinances that are not in compliance with the state enabling law. Some of these ordinances were passed years ago and have not been updated to incorporate the changes that have occurred in the state enabling law since 1970. Other ordinances contain voluntary review or owner consent clauses that are not pursuant to the law. The SHPO determines if an ordinance is in compliance with Public Act 169 of 1970, as amended. The city of Ann Arbor is in compliance, and ALL residents in an Ann Arbor historic district are eligible!
For additional information about Michigan’s historic districts, refer to the SHPO’s Local Historic District Manual (from which this is excerpted) online called “Local Historic Districts in Michigan
How do I get a historic plaque for my house?
First, contact the Historic Preservation Coordinator to discuss your property and whether it is likely to meet the criteria for approval. If so, fill out a
Historic Plaque Application
(PDF) and submit it to the coordinator, for review by the Historic District Commission. If approved, the property owner may purchase the bronze plaque from Arnet’s on Jackson Road. The HDC will fax the request to Arnet’s for you. Arnet's will then send you a proof of the plaque and purchase agreement. Currently, the plaques cost about $230 (price subject to change with the cost of bronze). You would be responsible for picking it up at their shop once it is finished, and Arnet's will call you when it’s ready.