State and Local Designations
In addition to National Register listing are the myriad designations administered by states and municipalities, the most common of which are local historic
districts. Unlike their honorary counterparts, these are considered "restrictive" and require current and potential owners of old houses to weigh the pros and cons more carefully.
On the upside, inclusion in a local historic district can truly accomplish a preservationist's goal of keeping her house and neighborhood intact for future generations. There are also considerable financial benefits, in the form of tax breaks that parallel those for owners of National Register-listed houses, and significantly higher resale values. In Beaufort, South Carolina, for instance, houses in the town's official historic district sold for 21 percent more, all other factors being equal, than houses not in the district, according to a 2000 report by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. On the downside — as Rosemary Uzzo feared — inclusion in a historic district gives someone else a say in how you maintain or upgrade your property.
George Thomas, an architectural historian in Philadelphia, runs up against this situation all the time. In many historic sections of town, he says, merely adding a new porch light can be prohibited. But that degree of restrictiveness may be the exception more than the rule. In most places, historic-house regulations are not all that oppressive, says Pratt Cassity, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Community Design and Preservation. He surveyed preservation commissions around the country and, based on 700 responses, found that local boards approved requested changes more than 95 percent of the time. (Of course, that may have as much to do with homeowners knowing what alterations will pass muster as it does with rubber-stamp review boards.) Even in places with vigilant historic-review boards, regulations typically end at the front door, with a home's exterior, and often only the facade. Changes that are invisible from the street, such as a rear addition that meets local zoning requirements, are likely to be approved, if they are regulated at all.
To homeowners who truly care about preserving their neighborhood's architectural integrity, abiding by historic-district restrictions is worth the hassle, because the same regulations that impinge on your right to redesign your porch also protect you from a neighbor determined to bulldoze the clapboard saltbox next door and put up a vinyl-sided McMansion in its place. And the cost of making improvements starts to look a lot less daunting when you know that the taxman is footing part of the bill.