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What Is a Historic District?

Historic districts usually limit development in order to preserve the area's character.
Buildings in a historic district may be repurposed for modern use while retaining their original appearance.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 18 December 2014
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A historic district is an area of historic importance where people set aside buildings and other features to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. Development and other activities are limited in a historic district to maintain the historic integrity. The process of designating historic districts usually requires an application to a certifying agency, followed by inspection and requests for documentation. If the agency agrees that a region is historic, it can issue a proclamation and steps can be taken for preservation.

Most commonly, a historic district is a section of a city or town. It can also be an entire town or village, in some cases, and people may also designate sites outside city limits as historic districts on the grounds of their importance in the region's history. Property owners have restrictions placed on how they can use their property, and ordinances may be passed to limit the kinds of businesses allowed in the district and to curtail its use for events and other activities.

There are different levels of historic preservation, including local, regional, and national agencies, all of which have their own standards for certification. Usually, input from the community is required during the process and the expressed wishes of property owners may be considered. While property values tend to rise in a historic district, the hardships created by limits on activities can be frustrating and people may resist having their homes or businesses included in a historic district.

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Grant money is often available for activities like historic preservation in these regions. Landowners can often get help with expenses related to property upkeep and renovation, as long as they can show how a project will contribute to the historic tone of the region. The money can also be used for things like replicating historic features and sites or making the district have a more historic character with measures such as replacing sidewalks or changing street surfaces. Some historic districts may host events like reenactments and fairs to attract tourism and provide public education and outreach about the history of the region.

When people purchase property in a historic district, they are provided with disclosures about the restrictions on their use of the property and the function of the historic district. It can be helpful to ask other property owners, as well as real estate agents for information about what it is like to own property in the district, as the disclosures usually follow the letter of the law, but may not discuss common issues that arise, like the difficulty of getting permits for construction activity.

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