Historic designations and related protections can be a confusing stew of terms that in some ways defy logic. For example, how can a locally recognized landmark property be more protected than a National Register property? Though much has been written about our historic preservation toolbox, a simple way to review options for saving properties in Greensboro is as a three-tiered system of bronze, silver, and gold.
Bronze Level Preservation: National Register designation could be considered a Bronze Level preservation tool. This designation is considered the nation’s official list of buildings and districts that are worthy of preservation for their significance to broad themes of American history, architecture, archaeology, and culture. National Register designation ensures that properties of this caliber are considered in the planning of federal undertakings such as road construction. Designation of properties is made by the National Park Service in partnership with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) with owner consent. A National Register district, as opposed to an individual property, may be listed with consent of a majority of owners. Preservation is encouraged, not mandated, through historic preservation tax credits offered by federal and state governments in partnership with private owners. If owners want to use tax credits for work on National Register properties, changes must be approved by the SHPO. If owners do not want tax credits, there are no restrictions. Unfortunately, in North Carolina, privately-owned sites on the National Register may be destroyed without any notification to preservation groups or jurisdictions.
Conclusion: The National Register of Historic Places is an important tool for preservation interests. It is a carrot, not a stick, in terms of pairing financial incentives without the ability to prevent demolition of the resource.
Silver Level Preservation: “All politics is local” and so too, is historic preservation. In contrast to the National Register, local designations carry more protective powers in North Carolina. Greensboro enjoys two local-level historic preservation designations: local historic landmarks and local historic districts. Both are framed within state enabling legislation for local jurisdictions to participate (or not). Local Landmarks are designated by the Guilford County Joint Historic Preservation Commission, a quasi-judicial board that evaluates nominations. Local landmarks may also participate in a property tax deferral program that impacts a percentage of annual property taxes. Local districts are governed by the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), a quasi-judicial board that evaluates nominations. Importantly, both forms of local designations are subject to design review…but demolition cannot be denied, only delayed for up to one year. This is meant to serve as a “cooling off” period for creative solutions to be developed to save endangered properties.
Conclusion: Local designations carry more protection of historic resources through design review and a demolition delay, but properties may still succumb to bulldozers if that is the will of a private property owner.
Gold Level Preservation: The gold standard for historic preservation in Greensboro is a preservation easement. An easement is a legal interest in real estate that is attached to the property’s deed that conveys control of architectural features, elevations, or landscape to an easement holder. Greensboro citizens have a choice of preservation easement holders – Preservation North Carolina and the Preservation Greensboro Revolving Fund are both nonprofit organizations established in 1975 and 1988, respectively, that have experience with easements. Owners of properties with preservation easements must communicate with the easement managing organization for changes to the property, and demolition may be denied. Unlike the previous two governmental tools, an easement program contains no regular economic tax credit or deferral.
Conclusion: In Greensboro, preservation easements are the strongest preservation tool available to save historic structures. Although the action of establishing an easement is voluntary, adherence to the terms remain binding through all future owners.
These historic preservation tools are recognized through the U.S. Constitution and North Carolina state law. Could they be stronger? Yes, if federal or state elected officials worked to strengthen the terms of these tools by increasing incentives or by toughening the ability to demolish listed structures. Some municipalities in North Carolina have gained local authority through the General Assembly to create higher standards related to maintenance or destruction of properties.
If you want to save an historic structure in Greensboro, one or more of these tools are needed to increase the odds of a preservation-friendly outcome. In Fisher Park, for example, the Hillside Estate (through the foresight of its previous owner Sandra Cowart) enjoyed both bronze and silver level preservation tools…resulting in a preservation success. In nearby Sedgefield, former owners of the Adamsleigh estate avoided these preservation tools, resulting in a threatened demolition of a valuable resource. The best time to preserve is before the threat takes shape.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
Preservation Greensboro contributes a key role in the growth of Greensboro’s economy and vitality through tourism, reinvestment, and place-making. With diverse initiatives that help you to restore, explore, and connect with your community, Preservation Greensboro provides a voice for revitalization, improved quality of life, and conservation of historic resources for future generations. Are you a member yet? Learn more about Greensboro’s only member-supported preservation organization by exploring our website or joining our Facebook page. Please join us today!