Bits & Pieces with Rebecca Lavallee: Historic Districts

The topic for this month’s Bits & Pieces can once again be attributed to an ongoing project. This time the project is being worked on in conjunction with the Douglas Historical Commission (disclaimer: I am a member of the Commission). The Douglas Historical Commission has been working towards a Downtown Douglas Historic District. Now, before you get out the pitchforks and protest signs, let’s dive into what a Historical District is and what it means for you, the homeowner.

Douglas is eligible for two types of historic districts:

The first is a Local Historic District, which is the strongest form of protection to a town’s treasured historic resources. Local Historic Districts are administered by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, under the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts General Law requires that there is a two-thirds majority town meeting vote in order to create a Local Historic District. If your home or business falls within the Historic District, your local Historic District Commission must approve any proposed changes to exterior architectural features that are visible from a public way. A Local Historic Commission also has oversight over any new builds to the district, ensuring that the designs will be compatible with existing architecture. It is believed that by establishing a local historic district, “…a community recognizes the importance of its architectural heritage and how vulnerable it is to inappropriate alterations without this local regulation.”

The second is a National Register District, which is a part of the National Register of Historic Places. “The National Register of Historic Places is the list of individual buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts, deemed important in American history, culture, architecture, or archaeology.” The National Register of Historic Places is administered by the Secretary of the Interior and is a federal designation. Unlike a Local Historic District, being placed on the National Register does not impose any restrictions on alterations done by the homeowners. Once a district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is automatically included in the State Register of Historic Places.

Both Local Historic Districts and National Register Districts come with benefits outside of historic recognition. The biggest benefit is obviously the protection aspect of a historic district. While the National Register District does not provide the same protections as a Local Historic District, it still provides a level of protection against any state or federal projects that could have an adverse effect on the historical area. There can be tax incentives that are associated with rehabilitation projects for these districts, as well as government funding provided through grant programs.

Regardless of which type of district a town or city chooses, the intention is the same. Preserving and honoring the history of the town and townspeople. In the next Bits & Pieces, I’ll delve into Historic Districts and Douglas, and preservation of Douglas’s history.