Apply for Historic Designations

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How to Save a Place Apply for Historic Designations

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Federal Designations Federal designations include the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program and listing on the National Register for Historic Places (NR or National Register). Both the National Historic Landmarks Program and the National Register for Historic Places are managed by the National Park Service.

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National Historic Landmarks Program NHLs are places that have the strongest association with a significant event or best tell the story of a person who played a significant role in our nation’s history. NHLs relate stories that are important to the history of the nation as a whole, not just local communities or states.

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National Register for Historic Places The National Register focuses on sites and properties that are more than 50 years old and interpret stories that are important to a local community, the residents of a specific state, or to all Americans. Historic places that are less than 50 years old can be listed on the National Register, but must adhere to special criteria and guidelines.

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State Designations Historic properties or sites can be listed on a state register, which is managed by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Not all states have registers, so contact your SHPO to learn the ins-and-outs of your state’s policies.  

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Local Designations Local communities enact preservation ordinances. These ordinances create a process by which properties may be designated as individual landmarks or as contributing structures within a historic district. Each ordinance is tailored to fit the needs of each individual community.

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NOTE: In general, a historic site can have local, state, and federal designations.

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Benefits of Federal Historic Designation Both the National Register and NHL offer protections from federal government work that threatens a historic site (when building a highway, for example). They may also make property owners eligible for preservation funds and federal historic tax credits that can help offset the costs of rehabilitation.

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Benefits of State Historic Designation Listing on the state register protects a historic place from state government work and makes it eligible for state funding and tax benefits.

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Benefits of Local Designation Local preservation ordinances are one of the best forms of legal protection a historic place can have because they protect it from local zoning and development laws. They also give property owners more confidence in the long-term stability of the neighborhood.

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Note: Although the National Park Service manages the NHL and the National Register, each has a different application process.

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How to Apply for NHL Listing For the NHL program, the owner, a preservation organization, or an interested member of the general public must nominate the property. After NHL staff reviews and approves the nomination, it passes to the Landmarks Committee, which then reviews, approves, and recommends the nomination to the Secretary of the Interior, which makes the final call for NHL designation. The process can take anywhere from two to five years.

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How to Apply for NR Listing For the National Register, a site is nominated to the State Historic Preservation Office, who, after approving the nomination, sends it to the National Park Service for final review by the Keeper of the National Register. The Keeper reviews the nomination and determines within 45 days if the historic site will or will not be listed.

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Note: Remember, if you are nominating a historic site and you are not the property owner, it is always a good idea to communicate your preservation interests to the owner, as well as how those interests can benefit them in a variety of ways. Establishing pleasant relationships with owners of historic sites earlier on can make the designation process smoother later.

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How to Apply for Local Designation At the local level, it is imperative to first review the historic preservation ordinance in the area. It will explain the community’s unique criteria for a property to be designated as historic, as well as the review process. Because each ordinance is site-specific, it’s difficult to summarize a “one size fits all” process. Generally, you initiate an application for historic designations, and then prepare a well-researched argument for the local preservation commission to review at a public hearing, where they will give their recommendations and/or approval for designations.

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Photos courtesy: Emily Farah, Essential Public Radio; Slick-o-Bot, Wikimedia Commons; Adam Fagen, Flickr; NPS Cultural Landscape Program, Flickr; Don Shall, Flickr; Ed!, Wikimedia Commons; Jonathunder, Wikimedia Commons; Rauglothgor, Wikimedia Commons; Orange County Archives, Flickr; Alan Levine, Flickr; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Flickr.