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Historic Landmarks Commissions: What Are They? What Do They Do?

The single most powerful historic preservation tool under North Carolina Law is the legal entity known as a Historic Landmarks Commission, sometimes called Historic Properties Commission. It exists to recommend the designation of individually significant historic property, both real and personal, as historic landmarks and to secure the preservation of same. It derives its powers from North Carolina General Statute 160A-400, which enables local governments to create a Historic Landmarks Commission The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (C-MHLC) was established by joint action of the Charlotte City Council and the Board of Commissioners of Mecklenburg County in 1973. The C-MHLC functions for Charlotte, the unincorporated portions of Mecklenburg County, and the Towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, and Huntersville.

The essential test of whether property qualifies for historic landmark designation is whether it possesses special historic significance. There is no specific age requirement. It could have been built last year if it has special historic significance. There is no legal requirement that the owner has to agree to have his, her, it or their property designated as a historic landmark.  The Historic Landmarks Commission will be sensitive and respectful of an owner's desire regarding recommendations for processing all owner's property, but the Historic Landmarks Commission, after deliberate consideration, will recommend the processing of properties for historic designation if it deems that the property is worthy of consideration for designation in accordance with prevailing guidelines.

The essential test of whether property qualifies for historic landmark designation is whether it possesses special historic significance. There is no specific age requirement. It could have been built last year if it has special historic significance. There is no legal requirement that the owner has to agree to have the exterior and grounds of his, her, it or their property designated as a historic landmark. Owners must give approval for the designation of the interiors of buildings.   The Historic Landmarks Commission will be sensitive and respectful of an owner's desire regarding recommendations for processing all owner's property, but the Historic Landmarks Commission, after deliberate consideration, will recommend the processing of properties for historic designation if it deems that the property is worthy of consideration for designation in accordance with prevailing guidelines.

A Survey and Research Report is prepared for each prospective historic landmark, documenting the historical significance, both associative and architectural, of the prospective historic landmark. The Historic Landmarks Commission uses this report to determine whether the subject property should be recommended for designation as a historic landmark. If so, the Commission's recommendation, along with all supporting documentation, is sent to the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, which has up to 30 days to comment upon the Commission's recommendation. If the Division of Archives and History comments favorably upon the prospective designation, the C-MHLC schedules a joint public hearing with the local governing board, e.g., Charlotte City Council, Matthews Town Board, which has zoning jurisdiction over the subject property. If the comment is not favorable, the C-MHLC reconsiders the issue and decides whether it wishes to continue the designation process regardless. The purpose of this public hearing is to give all interested parties the opportunity to comment upon the prospective designation. It is the decision of the appropriate local governing board as to whether the subject property becomes a historic landmark. If the appropriate governing board does designate the property as a historic landmark, an ordinance is sent to the owners of record and is filed in the Register of Deeds Office, the Buildings Standards Office, and the Mecklenburg County Tax Office. The designation shall remain in effect until such time as the appropriate local governing board removes such designation upon recommendation of the C-MHLC. Many people mistakenly believe that historic landmarks are always beautiful, old buildings. Historic Landmarks can be archeological sites, such as the Isaac Newton Alexander Grist Mill Ruin on the Myers Park High School Campus, humble mill houses, like the representative Atherton Cotton Mill Mill House on Cleveland Ave. in Dilworth, farms of more than 200 acres, such as Rural Hill Plantation on Neck Road, or skyscrapers like the Johnston Building on South Tryon St. They can even be personal property, i.e., movable objects, such as Streetcar 85 in SouthEnd. Historic Landmark designation is not an award. It is a powerful land-use regulatory tool designed to serve the public good by affording the greatest possible protection for properties of individual historic significance. The major consequences of historic landmark designation are:

Owners of a historic landmark must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Landmarks Commission before undertaking any material alterations to those portions of their property which have been designated as a historic landmark. The demolition of a historic landmark may be delayed for up to 365 days by the Historic Landmarks Commission and during this period the appropriate local governing board may exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire the subject historic landmark. The Historic Landmarks Commission may acquire the fee simple or any lesser included interest, e.g., options, easements, in a historic landmark and may dispose of same by sale, lease or otherwise consistent with the purpose of preserving the property. A sign indicating that the property is a historic landmark may be placed on the property of, if the owner objects, upon the nearest public right-of-way. Officials of the Historic Landmarks Commission may enter onto the premises of historic landmarks for purposes of conducting necessary inspections, except the interiors of buildings, which requires the consent of owners to enter. Owners of historic landmarks may apply for an automatic deferral of 50% of the local property (Ad Valorem) taxes on those portions of the property which have been designated as a historic landmark. The taxes only come due when and if the appropriate local governing board removes the designation of the property as a historic landmark. In that instance, the owner must pay 3 years' back full taxes plus a penalty. There is no recapture provision upon sale of the property.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission uses two principal tools to advance the preservation of designated historic landmarks. First, it exercises design review over intended material alterations to historic landmarks. Second, it acquires the fee simple or any lesser included interest in historic landmarks and disposes of same through sale, lease, and otherwise consistent with the purpose of preserving the property.

 

Design Review

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission must determine whether intended alterations of historic landmarks are appropriate or inappropriate. It does this by measuring the intended alterations against design guidelines which have been adopted by the C-MHLC. The C-MHLC uses the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings for purposes of making this determination. It is not the purpose of design review to prohibit change. It is the purpose of design review to manage change, so that it will have the least intrusive impact upon the historic character of the historic landmark.

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards are:

THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR'S STANDARDS FOR REHABILITATION

1. A property shall be used for its historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment.

2. The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.

3. Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.

4. Most properties change over time; those changes that have acquired historic significance in their own right shall be retained and preserved.

5. Distinctive features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a historic property shall be preserved.

6. Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features shall be substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence.

7. Chemical or physical treatments, such as sandblasting, that cause damage to historic materials shall not be used. The surface cleaning of structures, if appropriate, shall be undertaken using the gentlest means possible.

8. Significant archeological resources affected by a project shall be protected and preserved. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures shall be undertaken.

9. New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.

10. New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.

The initial step in design review is for the applicant to fill out one of two types of applications for a certificate of appropriateness. Minor Works applications are, as suggested by the title, for relatively inconsequential intended changes to historic landmarks, e.g., new signage for a restaurant. The Consulting Director of the C-MHLC and the Chairman of the Design Review Committee of the C-MHLC must agree that an intended alteration is indeed a minor work. These two individuals also have the authority to approve the issuance of a Minor Works Certificate of Appropriateness, which means that such certificates can be processed quickly, typically within a day or two. If the Consulting Director and the Design Review Chairman do not agree that the intended action is a Minor Work or if they do not agree to approve the issuance of a Minor Works Certificate of Appropriateness, the application is submitted to the Design Review Committee of the C-MHLC and treated as a routine application. Applications for intended Substantive Changes to historic landmarks must be considered by the Design Review Committee of the C-MHLC, which recommends to the C-MHLC whether the subject certificate of appropriateness should be issued. The C-MHLC approves the issuance of the Certificate of Appropriateness, disapproves the issuance of the Certificate of Appropriateness, or returns the Certificate of Appropriateness to the Design Review Committee for additional review. Appeals of the actions of the C-MHLC with respect to the design review decisions are made to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Ultimate appeals are to the courts. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission cannot deny the issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness for the demolition of a historic landmark. It can, however, delay the effective date of such a certificate for up to 365 days. During this period the C-MHLC can request that the appropriate local governing board exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire the property. More typically, the C-MHLC would attempt to dissuade the owner from demolishing the property. An instance of success in this regard occurred with respect to the intended demolition of the W. G. Rogers House at 524 East Boulevard in Charlotte.

 

Property Acquisition And Disposal

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission has been most innovative in using its property acquisition and disposal powers as a means to preserve endangered historic landmarks. Under N.C.G.S. 160A-400, the Commission has the power to acquire and dispose of property in its own name. Also, unlike most public agencies, the Landmarks Commission does not have to use a sealed bid procedure to sell property and does not have to sell property to the highest bidder. It may instead sell property to parties which it believes will be prudent stewards of the subject historic landmarks. In November 1991 the voters of Mecklenburg County approved the issuance of $1 million in general obligation bonds to permit the C-MHLC to establish a historic preservation revolving fund, meaning that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission uses this money over and over again. Specifically, the C-MHLC purchases endangered historic landmarks, restores them, and sells them with restrictive covenants in the deed to assure their on-going preservation. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission has also established a non-profit affiliate, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation. The members of the C-MHLC also constitute the Board of Directors of the Foundation. Unlike the C-MHLC, which can only purchase designated historic landmarks, the Foundation can purchase the fee simple or any lesser included interest in any property which it deems to be of historic significance. The Foundation also operates as a revolving fund, meaning that it also purchases, restores, and sells endangered historic sites. It uses both public and private money. The information on this site describe the major projects of the C-MHLC and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation to date.