Community Wide Planning Resources For Historic District Commissions

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(This material is excerpted from Preserving Community Character: A Preservation Planning Handbook for New Hampshire, available in our bookstore) 

When it comes to recognizing or protecting historic character in a specific area of the community, municipalities have three options, each of which is distinctively different: (1) National Register historic districts, (2) locally designated historic districts, and (3) neighborhood heritage districts. The districts can be separate designations or can overlap with each other. The town's historical resources survey will identify areas within the community where a particular type of district might be appropriate.


1. National Register Historic District

A National Register district is initiated at the local level for ultimate approval by both the state and federal government. Such districts are strictly honorary, and impose no review or restrictions on the use or alterations to properties in the district--unless state or federal funds, permits or licenses are involved. Then a consulting review process must be followed, called Section 106, that aims to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects to historic resources brought about by the federally funded, licensed, or permitted action.

Detailed information on National Register historic districts or the Section 106 process may be obtained by consulting the NH Division of Historical Resources. 


2. Locally Designated Historic District

A locally designated historic district is a zoning district (usually an overlay), created at the municipal level and administered by a local citizen commission. Historic District Commissions review proposals for exterior alterations, new construction and demolition on properties within the district, using regulations and guidelines developed by the community. Property-owner's plans must meet with the approval of the Historic District Commission before construction can begin. 


3. Neighborhood Heritage District

A neighborhood heritage district (also known as a neighborhood conservation district) is similar to a locally designated historic district in that both are zoning districts, but the heritage district operates under more flexible, less stringent standards. A heritage district is a group of buildings and their settings that are architecturally and/or historically distinctive and worthy of protection based on their contribution to the architectural, cultural, political, economic or social history of the community. Sometimes a heritage district lacks sufficient significance or integrity to be designated as a traditional historic district. In other cases, the neighborhood or political climate favors looser standards.

Within a neighborhood heritage district, some degree of change is subject to mandatory review and approval. In most instances, the change is defined as major alterations, additions, new construction, demolition or relocation. Some communities have binding review over major changes and advisory review over minor changes, such as window replacement, applying synthetic siding, removing architectural trim and demolition of a part of a building, such as a porch. Overall, heritage districts seek to limit the detrimental effect of alterations, additions, demolitions and new construction on the character of the community through a combination of binding and non-binding regulatory review.

Nationally, towns and cities with heritage districts report that they have helped to reduce teardowns, increased or preserved the supply of affordable housing, revitalized neighborhoods close to downtowns, guided small business expansion into residential areas, and prevented larger commercial encroachment.

There is a high degree of citizen participation in creating a heritage district. The neighborhood initiates the process, with support and assistance from the heritage commission and planning board/staff. Residents develop the standards under which the district is administered by deciding what the special qualities of the neighborhood are and what type of change they wish to avoid. Once the district is established, neighborhood representatives sit on the review board.

• Offers an alternative when a locally designated historic district is not likely to be well-received
• Those most affected are responsible for creating, tailoring and administering it
• It is less stringent than a locally designated historic district

• Less restrictive nature may not provide adequate protection, particularly if the district contains highly significant or architecturally distinctive buildings
• May not prevent major remodeling and loss of important architectural details


For further information on neighborhood heritage districts:

Miller, Julia, Protecting Older Neighborhoods Through Conservation District Programs. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2004

Neighborhood Heritage Districts: A Handbook for New Hampshire Municipalities