Historic Resource Protection Standards

Implementing municipal policy for the protection of historic resources can take many forms and can involve different types of measures. Developing Historic Resource Protection Standards are one type of implementation method. Often these standards are adopted in zoning, subdivision/land development, or local historic district ordinances, and can vary depending on the historic resources they are addressing, their context, municipal policy, political climate, and other factors.

PA Act 247, the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), provides the legislative basis for historic resources protection using local land use controls including zoning and subdivision/land development ordinances. There are several applicable sections of the MPC including §603(b)(2) "Zoning ordinances may permit, prohibit, regulate, restrict and determine [among other provisions]…size, height, bulk, location, erection, construction, repair, maintenance, alteration, razing, removal and use of structures…" and §603(g)(2) "Zoning ordinances shall provide for protection of natural and historic features and resources."

In Chester County, the MPC has often been applied to protect historic resources through the adoption of municipal-wide historic regulations and an overlay zoning district. However, other incentive measures have been implemented though zoning in some municipalities; for example, allowing additional uses for historic resources in order to promote their adaptive reuse and continuation.

A local historic commission is created under the Township or Borough Code, often in coordination with zoning regulations and to provide additional assistance to local officials. Municipalities can adopt historic resource protection standards pursuant to PA Act 167, the Historic District Act, which authorizes local governments to enact ordinances to regulate the construction, alteration, restoration, and demolition of buildings in certified local historic districts. While MPC regulations largely focus on community character and land use-oriented protection measures, Act 167 regulations focus primarily on preserving the physical aspects of the historic built environment and the historic landscape and its context in a defined area of a historic or conservation district.

Local historic districts and ordinances created under Act 167 are certified by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and administered at the local level and with the assistance and recommendations of a local historical architectural review board. In Chester County, Act 167 has most often been applied to preserve the character, context, and architecture of key historic areas in towns and villages. Act 167 is often incorrectly associated with strict architectural and aesthetic design requirements such as detailed building elements and color limitations; in fact, the enabling legislation is written broadly and provides significant amounts of flexibility and latitude when developing regulations. Requiring certain limited building colors and the like is not a requirement of the Act.


Historic Resources

Historic Goshenville in East Goshen Township

Historic Resource Protection Standards can provide the following benefits:


Historic Resource Protection Standards can have the following challenges:

Implementation Process

Historic Resources

Historically-compatible new construction in Phoenixville Borough

Broad input from the municipality is needed to achieve public consensus about the type and extent of appropriate historic resources protection measures. Municipal historic commissions or other similar entities or parties should be invited to the discussion, guidance and recommendations as well as to serve as liaisons to the community at large.

PA Act 167 enabling legislations offer local governing agencies significant latitude in structuring historic preservation ordinances that are appropriate for their municipalities. Municipal-wide historic resources zoning regulations that are created under Act 247 and certified historic districts created under Act 167 are some of the most effective ways of protecting historic resources in Pennsylvania, and have been used throughout Chester County.

The following provide general steps for developing local historic resources protection regulations:

Inventory Historic Resources: Before regulations can be developed, a comprehensive historic resources survey of properties along with in-depth definition of the area's historic character is needed to obtain information on the extent, nature, and location of historic and cultural resources and landscapes, and to delineate historic and/or zoning district boundaries or extent. Ideally, this survey would occur as part of the community-wide comprehensive planning process because the identification, documentation, and evaluation of historic resources are the foundation for local preservation planning. Comprehensive survey forms, preferably using PA Historical and Museum Survey Forms for consistency, establish the basis for local resources protection standards.

Foster Citizen Participation: The most successful historic preservation programs are those with a high degree of citizen support. Public input and active citizen participation is critical for the successful development, adoption, and application of local regulations. It provides local officials an understanding of the level and type of current municipal support for historic resources protection. It also creates a forum in which residents, property owners, businesses, and other stakeholders can become aware, involved, and provide input about historic preservation issues and concerns.

Because the establishment of historic resource protection regulations can effect an owner's future changes to a property, it is particularly important that the municipality understands the goals of preservation and how protecting historic properties can benefit the municipality as a whole as well as individual property owners. For example, building activity is usually monitored by the building permit process, and in the case of Act 167 regulations, applications for permits within an historic district are first reviewed by the Historical Architectural Review Board, which then makes a recommendation to the local governing body that makes the final decision on granting the permits.

Ordinance Preparation: The ordinance must define the historic resources and area to which standards will apply using a map and a related inventory, as well as establish the review processes, standards or criteria used for review, the governing body determination and reporting process, and the appeals process and related penalties. Regulations related to historic resources that are adopted pursuant to the MPC typically became part of the municipal zoning ordinance and/or the subdivision and land development ordinance. Act 167 regulations are typically designed as an independent ordinance, or in some cases are placed in the zoning ordinance to ensure their incorporation and compatibility with other related municipal standards. The approach chosen will determine the final format. In the case of Act 167 regulations, the appointment and duties of the historical architectural review board are also defined within the ordinance. Likewise, while municipal historical commissions are authorized under the Township or Borough Code, in some cases their enactment regulations are placed in the zoning ordinance for ease of reference and consistency with other historic resources standards.

Ordinance Adoption: Historic resource protection standards developed under the MPC are adopted following the specific requirements in the MPC for zoning, subdivision and land development ordinance, or other measures. For Act 167 standards, first the local ordinance is adopted by the local governing body and then it and related background information on the historic district is submitted to Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for review and certification regarding Act 167 requirements. After notification of certification, the governing body can appoint the historical architectural review board members and implement the ordinance.

Items to Consider

Relationship between MPC and Act 167 Regulations: In developing historic resources protection standards under Act 247 or Act 167, it is important to ensure that the zoning ordinance or subdivision and land development ordinance and the historic district act ordinance complement one another. Even though the regulation of a certified historic district may be included as part of the zoning ordinance, these regulations can address the physicality of structures in a historic district, while their use and lot dimensional standards are regulated under the zoning ordinance. Problems can result if the provisions affecting a structure's physical elements conflict with the permitted use or other requirements for the structure. Deliberate care should be taken when developing regulatory measures to ensure that the provisions affecting historic resources are complementary.

Review Criteria and Design Guidelines and Standards: The use of review criteria and design guidelines and standards, both for guiding alterations to existing structures and in evaluating plans for new construction, is important for the effective administration historic resource protection standards. Requests for building, demolition, and zoning permits cannot be appropriately evaluated unless they can be objectively measured against an adopted standard. To assist the Historical Architectural Review Board or Historical Commission in evaluating review requests, and to help property owners comply with the ordinance, municipalities should define the review criteria and develop or adopt design guidelines and standards.

In general, a five-step process should be followed to establish design guidelines and/or standards:

  1. Adopt a common vocabulary to describe design issues: A set of design guidelines that uses consistent terms and is written in an understandable manner will help ensure wide public acceptance and support.
  2. Define the present day character: The present character of a historic area can best be defined in terms of land use and building types. This analysis should focus on building styles, architectural components, construction materials, landscaping, and related areas.
  3. Define the historic character: The historic character must be defined in order to understand the relationship between the past and the present.
  4. Compare present and historic characteristics: After the present character and the historic character are defined, they can be compared and the integrity of the historic district can be created. This will also help identify the types of guidelines that need to be adopted to protect the important historic characteristics.
  5. Forecast future character: Before appropriate guidelines can be identified, development trends must be assessed. By comparing the likely types of future development to the type of development that the municipality desires, appropriate design guidelines can be created.
Historic Resources

Downingtown Log House

Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation: Many municipalities now use the Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation as a general guide in evaluating requests for alterations. These Standards were initially developed to determine the appropriateness of alterations proposed for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but are now widely used to evaluate the appropriateness of historic preservation activities of all types. These standards include the following general policies:


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