We are committed to preserving property of historical significance as part of our rich national heritage. Numerous laws provide procedures for site-by-site historical designation and protection. The preservation of buildings, districts and other properties of historical and architectural significance is not only important for cultural enrichment, but also a vehicle for economic growth and revitalization.
Practically, historic preservation laws can have profound effects on the rights and responsibilities of property owners, prospective buyers, renters and developers. They may be restricted in alteration, decoration, new development and use, and may have affirmative responsibilities related to upkeep and conformance with historic standards. Care must be taken to understand applicable laws and apply for permits and variances where necessary. Violation of these laws can result in fines and other penalties and in extreme situations, even criminal liability.
On the positive side, legal designation of your property as historic can bring you personal or economic benefits because of eligibility for grants, loans or tax perks for maintenance, repair or restoration. Saving an old building may be less expensive in the long run than building a new one and is usually more ecologically sound. Historical preservation can also bring commercial success through increased tourism.Federal, State and Local Laws
Although significant federal historic preservation laws were passed in 1906 (national monuments) and 1935 (national historic landmarks), national historic preservation began in earnest with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), which established the National Register of Historic Places and procedures for protection of properties of historical, cultural, architectural, engineering or archaeological interest. NHPA assigned to the federal government the responsibility for historic preservation, working with federal agencies, Native Americans, state and local governments, and the public at large. More recent important federal laws and executive orders have rounded out a robust system of historic property protection.
Commonly, state and local governments have similar laws allowing designation of historic properties. County and municipal zoning laws in particular may restrict or otherwise carefully control development, maintenance and demolition. Typically states and localities establish agencies, boards and officers with responsibility for administering historic preservation laws.Legal Issues
People with real estate interests, including owners, developers, leaseholders, buyers and sellers, may run up against historic preservation requirements and related issues. The law provides legal proceedings for owners to object to historic designation.
Typical questions include:
- Am I restricted in how I alter the outside or inside of my building?
- Even though my building is not significant, because it is inside a historic district, am I subject to restrictions?
- Would it be to my advantage to try to get my property designated as historically significant?
- What historic preservation zoning laws control what I can do with my property?
- Should I oppose designation of my property as historically significant?
- Can I construct an addition to my historically significant house?
- Are there design, color or height restrictions?
- Can I demolish all of part of my building?
- Has historical designation affected the value of my property, my ability to develop it or how I can use it?
- Do the restrictions on my property because of historical preservation status constitute a taking of my property by the government without just compensation?
- Do I have an affirmative duty to restore my historic property?
Historic preservation laws must be dealt with carefully. Early and ongoing advice from an experienced real estate attorney is essential, especially before undertaking any property alteration or demolition. A skilled real estate lawyer is an important partner either in attempting to have your property designated as historically significant or in fighting such a designation. Legal counsel is also vital if you are working with a public agency or appear headed to court over your historical preservation issue.
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