Historic Preservation District Authority Under Threat in State Legislatures
Historic districts in states across the U.S. are facing threats through proposed or pending legislation that focuses on funding and the freedom of property owners to alter their property.
Previously, state historic tax credits have occasionally lapsed, or sunsetted, such as in North Carolina, but later were restored as funding was found and local communities voiced support. However, a measure introduced by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin this legislative year was framed as strengthening homeowner property rights and may have inspired similar measures in Michigan and Utah.
The new Wisconsin law originally required property owners to consent to historic district designations. The law was amended to leave existing historic district designations intact, while still requiring a public hearing, the notification of affected property owners, and the establishment of an appeal process against the designation.
The retention of local community control over the historic preservation process came after a public outcry against making preservation voluntary and subject to having all relevant property owners in support of the measure.
In Utah, a new law will require two-thirds of property owners to support and petition for historic district status, in addition to a public referendum prior to enacting historic preservation designations.
A proposal by the Michigan legislature, since shelved, would have allowed historic district designations to sunset after 10 years in order to try and boost property values at the cost of additional red tape for districts forced to continually reapply for their certifications. Previously, Michigan’s historic preservation tax credit was cut from the budget as part of money saving measures on the part of the legislature.
APA’s Michigan Chapter was active in organizing in response to the proposed bill, sending out action alerts and press releases that led to several radio interviews. Additionally, the chapter developed a planner’s position statement that was posted on Facebook, and coordinated its activities with outside groups, including the City of Grand Rapids and the Historic Preservation Network.
Currently, 33 states offer historic tax credits that leverage use of the federal historic tax credit to spur investment and rehabilitation of historic sites and promote local tourism. The federal historic preservation tax incentives program offers a 20 percent income tax credit intended to assist in the rehabilitation of certified historic structures, tax benefits for deeds protecting historic properties, and a 10 percent tax credit for non-historic buildings built before 1936 that are rehabilitated for non-residential use.
State tax credits are used to boost use of the federal credit and bring in additional federal dollars for states, support revitalization and repair efforts, and boost tourism revenue. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and related organizations have partnered to support historic tax credits and provide resources to help reinstate state tax credits where they have lapsed or been repealed.
Actions to boost the benefits of the national Historic Tax Credit (HTC) at the federal level include a measure introduced in the House that would increase the tax credit to 30 percent and expand eligibility to additional small and rural communities.
Preservation of historic sites and additional tourism and economic development opportunities will continue to be strongly influenced by the ways in which opportunities for the public to benefit are framed and how much value is put on current and ongoing preservation efforts.
About the Author
Jeff Bates is APA's state government affairs associate.
Top image: A plaque marks the Mansion Hill Historic District in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Flickr user Shlhmel Barger (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0).