Community Wide Planning Overview
Many communities have consciously implemented strategies to protect their downtowns, village centers or rural areas. Some of the most common are described at the end of this page..
In 2006, the NH Preservation Alliance published a handbook, Preserving Community Character: A Preservation Planning Handbook for New Hampshire. This was designed to meet the need for information about the preservation and planning tools and techniques available to municipalities. While often spearheaded by the local heritage or historic district commission, these strategies can be evaluated and implemented by citizen petition or other arms of local government. These tools offer an array of opportunities to protect and preserve the cultural, historical, or even natural resources of the community. Each has a different purpose and effect on the preservation of a community's character. Some can be implemented independently, while others are designed to be used in tandem. In any event, for these strategies and methods to be effective, they require support and commitment from within the community. (Note: Links are excerpts from the published handbook, which is available on CD-Rom in our bookstore.)
Table of Contents for Preserving Community Character
1. Historical Resource Surveys and Registers (not yet online)
2. Municipal Master Plan: Historical Resources Chapter
3. Historic Districts
4. Heritage Commissions
5. Archeological Sites and Programs (not yet online)
6. Historic Preservation Review and Compliance (not yet online)
7. Demolition Review Ordinance (not yet online)
8. Architectural Design Review (not yet online)
9. Site Plan Review (not yet online)
10. Zoning Ordinance (not yet online)
11. Innovative Land Use Controls (not yet online)
12. Easements (not yet online)
13. Current Use (not yet online)
14. Promoting Agriculture (not yet online)
15. Capital Improvements Program (not yet online)
16. Tax Increment Financing (not yet online)
17. Affordable Housing (not yet online)
18. NH Tourism Policies (not yet online)
19. Scenic Roads (not yet online)
20. Scenic Byways (not yet online)
21. Stone Wall Protection (not yet online)
22. Roadside Trees Protection (not yet online)
One of the first things a community can do is establish a Heritage Commission. This appointed body works much like a conservation commission. It is not regulatory (which requires an established Historic District and rules governing changes to the structures within that area). Rather, it is advisory to the board of selectmen or city council, and can work on behalf of preservation, own property and accept gifts of money to rehabilitate those structures. Many of the tools listed below are appropriate for Heritage Commissions. Other activities include offering educational programs, creating a recognition program of historic plaques or signs, or submitting a regular column about historic resources to the local newspaper or town website.
Historical Resource Survey
A priority task for the heritage commission is to have a comprehensive understanding of what the community’s historical resources are. This is generally accomplished by undertaking a survey or inventory of historical buildings, structures, and sites. A historical resource survey can aid in understanding the community's historic character and assist in determining which resources take preservation priority and why. It provides ready access to accurate, useable information whenever needed. With accurate data, a municipality can make an informed decision quickly. The historical resource survey also plays a major role in creating a preservation chapter for the community's master plan.
Detailed information on conducting a historical resource survey can be found at http://www.nh.gov/nhdhr/programs/survey.htm.
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.
Detailed information on the various kinds of historic districts may be obtained by consulting the NH Division of Historical Resources www.nh.gov/nhdhr
Master Plan Chapter
Advocates for preservation can make an immediate contribution to preservation planning by working with town government to include a chapter on Historic and Cultural Resources, an optional component of the state-required municipal Master Plan. A master plan, sometimes called a comprehensive community plan, combines descriptive information, analysis of local trends, technical data and annotated maps. This material forms the basis for policies used by the community to manage and direct municipal growth, development and change. The historical and cultural resources chapter of the master plan should provide an overview of the history of the town or city; identify significant resources and historic areas that illustrate its history; and offer goals and action items to manage future change that might impact those resources. If there is a heritage commission, they should take an active role in writing this chapter, but volunteers can also come together to compile this information. Once their work is complete, their next project might be to propose that the town form a heritage commission.
* Merrimack completed a comprehensive chapter on historical resources in its 2002 master plan, which is on their website: http://www.merrimacknh.gov/
Demolition Review Ordinance
Several of New Hampshire's heritage commissions have spearheaded demolition review ordinances for their community. While the ordinance does not prevent demolition of a historic building, it does bring it to the attention of the heritage commission and the general public. Through discussion, education and exploration of alternative approaches, communities with a demolition review ordinance have successfully saved a number of buildings from the wrecking ball, while keeping property on the tax rolls and spurring creative new development. Click here for a PowerPoint on Demo Review.
The CLG program is a partnership between municipal governments and the state historic preservation program, to encourage and expand local involvement in preservation-related activities. It is administered through the NH Division of Historical Resources, and municipal governments must apply for admission to the program. The Division of Historical Resources (DHR) designates at least 10 percent of its annual Historic Preservation Fund allocation from the Department of the Interior to local governments that have become Certified Local Governments.
To be eligible, a local government must have established a historic preservation review commission, which may be either a historic district commission or a heritage commission with historic district responsibilities. In addition to its other responsibilities, the historic district commission or heritage commission serves as an advisory body to the municipal government and to the land use boards (planning board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, and conservation commission). In that role, it becomes the coordinating body for municipal preservation activities. It prepares reports on National Register of Historic Places nominations, for all properties within the community (not just those within a historic district), sponsors public information programs on historic preservation, and prepares applications for matching grants from the CLG share of the state’s annual Historic Preservation Fund allocation, if the community chooses to apply for grant funds. The DHR provides training for the CLG commission on its CLG responsibilities and offers ongoing technical assistance to help the community and the commission conduct historic preservation projects, address preservation issues and opportunities, and resolve concerns relating to federally-assisted activities that may affect historic properties.
Matching grants to municipalities that have become Certified Local Governments can be used to fund community preservation activities such as historic resource surveys, National Register nominations, preservation planning, and educational projects. In some years, grants are also available for architectural plans and specifications, engineering reports, and even “bricks and mortar” work on National Register properties.
* RSA 674:44-d
One of the innovations of the heritage commission legislation is that it allows a municipality to establish a non-lapsing heritage fund, which the heritage commission can use for activities. The fund can receive public or private monies and accumulate from year to year. The commission can expend money from the fund without approval from the local legislative body, as long as the expenditure is for an activity allowed under the heritage commission ordinance. If the money is to be used to purchase an interest in real property, the commission must first hold a public hearing. Furthermore, to protect private property rights, neither the municipality nor the commission can use the fund to condemn property. This is equivalent to the provisions of a conservation fund, which have been used successfully by conservation commissions for over thirty years.
Public and municipal education
A key purpose of the heritage commission is to illustrate the public benefit of preserving a community's historical and cultural resources. There are multiple ways to raise awareness, including plaques highlighting important historic events or buildings; walking tours showcasing architectural and historic attributes of the community; exhibits on local history and distinctive citizens; school presentations; preservation awards program; website; publicizing the historical resource survey on the web site; and publishing a series of newspaper articles.
* The Troy Heritage Commission produced a walking tour that can be viewed online at http://www.troy-nh.us/walktour.html
* Hollis has a particularly informative web site on local history: http://www.hollis.nh.us/windowsonhollispast/
Real property acquisition
* RSA 674:44-b-II
The heritage commission can acquire real property in the name of the town or city and subject to the approval of the local governing body. The acquisition can be by gift, purchase, grant, bequest, devise, lease, or otherwise, and in the form of a fee or lesser interest, development rights, covenant, or other contractual right, including conveyances with conditions, limitations, or reversions. This mechanism was put into place as a means to maintain, improve, protect, limit the future use of, or otherwise conserve and properly use the historical and cultural resources of the city or town. With acquisition, the heritage commission is responsible for managing and controlling the property.
Historic barn easements
* RSA 79-D
In 2002 the State of New Hampshire passed legislation to encourage preservation of historic agricultural structures by allowing discretionary preservation easements under a new tax incentive mechanism. The statute defines agricultural structures to include barns, silos, corn cribs, ice houses and other outbuildings.
*In the first couple of years of the program, nearly 200 New Hampshire barns and other agricultural buildings in forty-eight towns were protected through barn easements.
In essence, the program provides property tax relief for owners of historic barns who agree to maintain the structures in keeping with their historic integrity and character for a minimum of ten years. Using statewide eligibility criteria and guidelines, the local governing body considers applications for the program, and if approved, grants tax relief within a range of a 25% to 75% reduction of the structure's full assessed value for as long as the easement is in effect. In order for an easement to become effective in the coming tax year, the local governing body must receive the application no later than April 15..
The town's heritage commission is ideally suited to identify, promote, and advise the local governing body on this program, as well as assist in implementing it. Some suggestions follow:
Encourage use: First and foremost, a heritage commission can help publicize the new tax incentive mechanism among owners of historic agricultural structures, other townspeople, and relevant local bodies such as the board of selectmen and planning board.
Support applicants: The heritage commission can help property owners research the history of their barns, locate old photographs, and identify significant features. The commission can also provide valuable help at the required public hearings and contribute a letter of support.
Assist busy boards of selectmen: The board of selectmen or council can delegate responsibility to the heritage commission for initial review of an easement application, a site visit, and recommendation for the tax reduction. If a reduction is granted, the commission can help local officials with the annual monitoring to ensure the terms of the easement are maintained.
* The Concord Heritage Commission developed a form in conjunction with the city assessor to evaluate barn easement applications.
Spread the good word: Particularly when preservation easements are already in place, the heritage commission can encourage local newspaper coverage on how the program is working to help preserve an important part of the community's heritage.
Take stock: To get a better understanding of the number and types of historic agricultural buildings which remain in town, as well as those which have been lost, the heritage commission is encouraged to conduct a community-wide survey of these structures and to directly involve their owners in such work. These surveys are invaluable both for the data they contain and as an advocacy tool for preserving historical buildings, open space and agricultural landscapes. The New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources has developed a Farm Reconnaissance Inventory Form for such surveys, available at http://www.nh.gov/nhdhr/programs/barn_survey.html
* Charlestown, Deerfield and Francestown have completed town-wide surveys of their barns.