Outcomes of June 8 TPNA Meeting on Historic Designation

TPNA’s June board meeting was held at George Watts elementary school on Wednesday, June 8, and was largely devoted to questions about Local Historic District (LHD) designation.  This is a complex issue that we have struggled with as a neighborhood for many years. The TPNA’s last in-person meeting before Covid, in March 2020, was focused on the same subject and did not conclude whether LHD designation was something the TPNA should pursue or not.

The June 8 meeting was intended to give more room for the discussion.  Approximately 45 neighbors attended, either in person or via Zoom.  Click here to view the June 8 recording.

Prior to the meeting, the Board solicited questions from Trinity Park neighbors and spoke with a variety of residents and leaders in other historic Durham neighborhoods, including Trinity Heights, Watts-Hillandale, and Morehead Hill (which have LHDs) and Old West Durham and Tuscaloosa-Lakewood (which have Neighborhood Protective Overlays, a customizable planning overlay designed to protect a neighborhood’s character, generally less restrictive than a LHD, and which is not likely to be an appropriate tool for Trinity Park, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article.)

The meeting featured a panel of 5 invited speakers:

  • Karla Rosenburg, planner with the Durham City-County Planning Department and staff liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission
  • Matt Bouchard, construction lawyer, currently serving as the Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission
  • Tony Sease, Trinity Park neighbor since 2006, architect, civil engineer, planner, urban designer; currently serving on the Durham Planning Commission
  • Sara Lachenman, serial TPNA guest speaker on LHDs, historic preservationist and owner of Four Over One Preservation and Design Services 
  • David Berger, Trinity Park neighbor since 2019, economist at Duke with expertise in housing markets 

With the help of our panelists, we first reviewed some background definitions and facts and then moved on to more value-based discussions about the pros and cons of LHDs for our neighborhood.

BACKGROUND FACTS AND DEFINITIONS

What is a Local Historic District (LHD)? An LHD is a type of zoning applied by the City Council or the Board of County Commissioners to an area of special historical significance.   Properties within an LHD are subject to additional regulations beyond the Unified Development Ordinance and to review for compliance with the Historic Properties Local Review Criteria when changes are made to the exterior. This review is conducted by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) or their Planning staff designee.

What is Durham’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC)? The HPC is a volunteer board of 9 Durham citizens which holds hearings to determine whether requested changes to the exterior of properties within an LHD are appropriate (according to state law, local ordinance, and the district’s historic preservation plan). Four members are appointed by the City, four by the County, and one by the Mayor. Five of the members have expertise in specific areas: an attorney, an historian, an architect, a landscape architect, and a real estate professional; the other four are open seats. 

What is a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA)? A COA is an official document which certifies that exterior changes to a property located in a local historic district are in keeping with the design review criteria established for the district.

What’s the process to make a change to a property in an LHD? There are two levels of COA—Minor (e.g., small changes, rear decks) and Major (e.g., new garage or ADU)—as well as a separate list of work considered regular maintenance and repair that doesn’t require a COA. Minor COAs are processed administratively, while major COAs are reviewed by the HPC. Paint color is never a concern. COA application forms are available online. For details, see:

https://www.durhamnc.gov/396/Process-for-COAs

https://www.durhamnc.gov/392/Certificates-of-Appropriateness 

Which other neighborhoods in Durham have LHD designations? Downtown Durham, Watts-Hillandale, Morehead Hill, Trinity Heights, Fayetteville Street, Cleveland Street, Holloway Street, and Golden Belt. The Preservation Plans for each LHD are available at https://www.durhamnc.gov/398/Local-Historic-Districts

Local Historic Resources of Durham
This map from https://www.durhamnc.gov/391/Historic-Preservation shows Durham’s existing Local Historic Districts, outlined in blue. (Local Historic Landmarks are shown in red.)

How can a neighborhood designate an LHD? Citizens can petition to have a district designated as an LHD.  The application process involves hearings with the HPC, City Council, and Planning Commission. During a preliminary hearing, the HPC will consider evidence that the area is of special historical significance and that the area possesses integrity of design, setting, materials, feeling and association, as well as the percentage of property owners that support designation. The entire process is defined in the UDO, section 3.16.2

PROS AND CONS OF LOCAL HISTORIC DISTRICT DESIGNATION

The panel and audience at the meeting also talked more broadly about the value of historic preservation, elements that form the character of our neighborhood (diversity of architectural styles and housing forms and sizes, walkability, a sense of our “story”), and larger forces and trends that have tremendous impact on us, such as the affordable housing crisis, Durham’s rapid economic growth, and changes to the UDO.

A sampling of perspectives and observations that were shared:

It’s about trying to … achieve a healthy balance between the desires of homeowners … and the common good of preserving our … heritage to give our great city a sense of place.” –Matt Bouchard

What this neighborhood is… is different in substantive ways from the other LHDs in our town.– Tony Sease In deciding whether an LHD is appropriate for Trinity Park, it’s important to understand the context of our neighborhood, all the details that make up our neighborhood. There are important differences within Trinity Park, and Trinity Park is also different in important ways from the other Durham neighborhoods with LHDs. Particularly the southern half of the neighborhood is a true urban neighborhood… with an incredible diversity of building types, architectural types and materials.  And incredible history of teardowns and transformations and change.  Like the removal of the Watts Hospital. A LHD won’t be effective in protecting our character.  It’s designed to protect something else.  Our character is fundamentally one of change. 

“…Historic preservation is about keeping the story of a place intact.  That includes the broad diversity of things that are here already.  What I worry about most for Trinity Park is that the little houses that create the diversity within Trinity Park are the things that are going to go.” –Sara Lachenman

“In general, the HPC wants …to help you meet the guidelines.” –Sara Lachenman The HPC will work with a property owner to make your properties look good and function well. They want you to use materials that have proven themselves over the past decades as things that are maintainable and will not end up in a landfill in 15 years when they fall apart, and will stick with the character of what’s around them.   

I looked at permit data online, regarding concern about teardowns, between June 2013 and the present, to see if we can see how being an LHD has affected the rate of teardowns.” –David Berger In this period, there were 5 teardowns (single family homes) in Trinity Park out of maybe 750 homes in the neighborhood; there were 4 teardowns in the LHD of Watts-Hillandale out of 377 units total; and there was 1 teardown in the LHD of Trinity Heights, out of 114 total units. This doesn’t seem like a huge rate for a booming growing town, and it doesn’t seem like TP is dramatically worse in terms of teardowns compared to nearby neighborhoods.

“In exchange for any protection that LHD provides, we have to agree to have this other process layered on, and have this other set of considerations.” –Tony Sease. This neighborhood has successfully curated in investments in change  – using good material choices, refurbishing historic evidence, while also welcoming environmentally-friendly materials, adding ADUs and increasing density. We don’t need to protect a snapshot in time – that’s not what we are.

I helped with 8 of the houses that had been Duke student houses, in changing them from multiplexes to single family.  I saw people making the financial decisions between restoring and replacing.  The state-level tax credit at the time was big and helped push things towards restoration.  Now the tax benefit is less, and maybe people would choose not to restore, and instead might replace/knock down.” –Sara Lachenman If those houses were up for sale now, how would people deal with them? Without the big tax incentive, people might not make the choice to preserve/restore like they did in the past. An LHD might give people the extra pressure needed to tilt decisions towards restoration.

LHD would help ensure that infill was compatible with the district – not matchy-matchy , but just that it looks like it belongs.” –Karla Rosenburg When a building is torn down in a neighborhood that is not an LHD, what is being built back?  Are the new structures harmonious with what’s around, in terms of massing, height, roof form, setback, materials used?  

“Even expensive houses are being sought for teardowns… these don’t feel like anomalies.  This house is not on the market for cheap, and I know someone – an investor – who is thinking of buying it and tearing it down.” –Audience member

No matter what we do, prices are going up because of our location.”–David Berger

“Trinity Park is beautiful for its diversity. Being an LHD would make it incrementally harder and more expensive to make changes.  Durham is booming, and we can’t stop that.  We’re in a unique location.  Our land values are going to go up no matter what.” –David Berger Being in a LHD will not stop investors from buying houses for teardown. A 1-year delay won’t change certain individuals from making their decisions.  It’s just a speed-bump.  

Q & A

Our panelists addressed neighbor concerns and questions, submitted prior to the meeting, on topics such as the COA process, whether environmentally-friendly upgrades are permitted in LHDs, and how LHD designation might affect the pace of teardowns, as well as the design of new construction (ADUs, in-fill or replacements for teardowns). We also had time for open Q&A with the audience. An inexhaustive list:

Q: What is the process for a minor COA, like having a gravel walkway in the backyard? How do I draw a site plan to scale?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: New paving is considered Minor level work. We don’t require site plans to be drawn perfectly to scale but suggest using a copy of an existing survey (if you have one) or snipping an image of your parcel from DurhamMaps.gov and drawing on top of them in colored ink.

Q: It seems that the COA process becomes an imbalanced burden for people who don’t know how to work the system, have the connections to ease them through the process, or have the budget to have architectural drawings made.  It seems to exclude those without the means.

A: From Karla Rosenburg: We don’t require professional architectural drawings, especially not for smaller scopes—hand drawings are accepted. Or photographs with features hand-drawn over them.

Q: I’m concerned about a lengthy, drawn-out processes to gain approval to make minor changes, updates or additions to homes (porches, landscaping, etc)

A: From Karla Rosenburg: Minor scopes of work (i.e., work with substantial precedence in the district and which does not negatively affect historic materials) require a Minor COA, with approximately 15-day review time. Major scopes of work (new construction, additions, demolitions, or removal of historic materials) require a Major COA (and HPC hearing), which takes about 2 months start to finish.

Q: Historic renovations done well can be very expensive, like finding historic glass to repair a broken window.  Should we really force people to spend so much?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: We do not require historic glass to repair broken windows. Wavy glass is definitely expensive, and most structures post-date the use of wavy glass. Modern glass is fine, but it should not be tinted differently than other glass in most cases. We do require double-hung window replacements to be simulated divided-light with shadow bars (muntins) on interior and exterior, aka triple-grid (unless 1-over-1 configuration) as opposed to the grille-between-the-glass (GBG) variety.

Q: How would LHD affect my ability to add a garage or build an ADU?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: New garages and ADUs are among our most common scopes of work reviewed and approved by HPC. New accessory structures must be subordinate to the primary structure in height and massing. Oftentimes this is interpreted by HPC as: the ridge line should be below the ridgeline of the primary structure (in relation to sea level), and the footprint must be notably less than that of the primary structure. Also, they should be placed at the rear of the structure, or side in some cases. (see Criteria for accessory structures).

A: From Tony Sease: It will make it take longer and drive up the cost.

Q: We already have financial tax benefits to encourage preservation (through the National Historic District designation). Local historic designation won’t give anyone additional financial incentive to invest in preservation. 

A: From Karla Rosenburg: Only our historic landmark program provides additional financial incentive (50% reduction in property taxes), but the bar for designation is high. However, studies have shown that housing values do benefit within local historic districts (perhaps due to the perceived stability of architectural aesthetics)—more research can be done on this. But yes, otherwise, there is no direct financial incentive.

Q: LHD doesn’t make sense for Trinity Park, given its historic, architectural, housing type, and demographic diversity. The physical bones of this neighborhood are far more than architectural styles. Given its size, location and physical and social diversity, it is not at risk of drastic change in the way that, say, Cleveland Holloway is. A knock down every few years is reasonable transformation of a neighborhood of this size and diversity, and is part of Trinity Park continuing to contribute to the richness and diversity of Durham.

A: From Karla Rosenburg: I understand the sentiment of this comment. Particularly since there is no possibility of directly denying a demolition (only approval with up to 365-day delay). However, one area the district designation could have a major impact is ensuring that what is built back is compatible (in size, roof form, materials) with the historic structures around it

Q: I love the diversity of TP. Don’t mind density, or the prospect of someone tearing down to build multiple small homes on one property. But I don’t want to see LARGE homes built on small lots like in Austin, Atlanta, Dallas. How would LHD protect against that?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: The Criteria are concerned with how new structures relate to the existing structures around them, regardless of lot lines. The UDO has its own limitations regarding required setbacks. New structures must be consistent in size, height, setback with structures around them as viewed from the street. This does not prevent additional units being constructed at the rear of a lot or infill with what we call “Missing Middle” housing (duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings—such as Salmon Apartments on Monmouth).

Q: I’ve heard there are still a lot of teardowns in Watts Hillandale.  Does being a LHD change the rate of teardowns?  Do you know of examples of homes that were not torn down because of the 1-year delay?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: We have had a good number of structures saved because of the 365-day delay condition. The delay is intended to allow the applicant to work with the HPC or the community/neighborhood associations to find an alternative to demolition. In one case, an architect worked pro bono to design an addition that saved the original house. In other cases, new buyers were found who were willing to rehab rather than raze.

Q: What are some examples of good or bad buildings that were approved after a teardown in an LHD?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: Our Criteria are only supposed to allow “good” buildings to be built! :) They must meet the Criteria for New Structures found in the Residential Noncontributing section of the Criteria. The HPC is quasi-judicial and can’t make judgment calls on good vs. bad—only on “meets” or “doesn’t meet” the Criteria. Presubmittal meetings with Planning staff prior to application submittal have helped designers/property owners adjust plans to meet the Criteria and arguably yield a more compatible result that the HPC can more easily approve. We have not had a denial in many years. Our last appeal (for traffic barriers in Watts-Hillandale) occurred in 2015.

Q: In an LHD, would homeowners be allowed to install energy efficient windows?  Or a ventilated roof (to replace an unventilated roof)? Or front-facing solar panels?  These types of changes would all be good for the environment, but might be different from the existing home, style-wise.

A: From Karla Rosenburg: There is no prohibition against energy-efficient windows. Original historic windows should be retained (unless proven deteriorated beyond repair), and can be repaired for improved efficiency as well as retrofitted with storm-proofing solutions or even with storm windows. Replacement windows should be consistent with existing in size, configuration, and material.

Q: How is an LHD enforced? What prevents a property owner from making renovations on their own?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: We do not roam looking for violations. Most violations are brought to us by concerned community members. If you saw something and wanted to report it, you’d contact Zoning Enforcement in the Planning Department.  They would then investigate and may issue a notice of violation, then work with the property owner to get a COA.  The owner might have to amend the work to meet the criteria.  It’s never gotten to the point of a fine.  Property owners and the HPC work together to find an acceptable solution. Maps.durhamnc.gov will show you whether a property has a COA – major or minor.  Look for a parcel, click on “related records.”

Q: How would the “period of significance” be determined in a place like Trinity Park, where there’s such a diversity of building ages?

A: From Sara Lachenman: There are spurts of building in every decade, but there are dominant periods, too.  The period of significance will depend on the boundaries, which would depend on who’s in favor of it all.

A: From Karla Rosenburg: The Planning Department will use National Historic Register nomination documentation to help determine which structures are contributing vs non-contributing and to help define the period of significance…. In Trinity Park, we have old mill houses from the 1900’s and 1910’s, and we have grander structures from the 1920’s and 30’s. Then farther north, things get more recent.  And a sprinkling of every decade thereafter. All of these form the fabric.

Q: Are front-facing solar panels allowed in an LDH?

A: From Karla Rosenburg: Yes. …The criteria were revised in 2020 based on feedback from Morehead Hill and other districts. Solar installations don’t require a COA for non-contributing structures, as long as they’re matte-black and don’t project more than 4 inches from the roof surface. For contributing structures, they must not be attached to a character-defining roof material – which is a standing seam metal roof or slate or terracotta roof. A minor COA is required for street-facing panels.  No COA is required for rear- or side-facing panels on contributing structures, or at all on non-contributing structures.  The only time you’d need a major COA is if you want to have panels that aren’t matte black and are more than 4 inches off the surface.

Q: Are there landscaping features that need a COA – like do you need to preserve big trees?

A: From Sara Lachenman: You can take down a diseased/dying tree of any size.  If you want to take a big healthy tree down, then you may need to replace it somewhere it will thrive.  The trees do get a little bit of protection too.

NEXT STEPS

The TPNA Board is not currently planning to pursue LHD designation. The issue is complex and requires significant research.  Several neighbors have expressed interest in continuing the research process to determine the best course of action.  If you would like to participate in this group, please email info@trinitypark.org

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