Preservation Brief No. 3: Historic Districts: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

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HARB Brief #3 provides answers to questions that arise when historic districts are proposed. It is printed in celebration of Lower Merion Township's newest historic district, the Merion Friends Meeting/General Wayne Inn Historic District, which became a reality on September 23, 1998.

An historic district is a group of resources (buildings, structures, objects or sites) possessing historical and architectural significance. Historic districts can be classified as either federally designated National Register Historic Districts or municipally regulated districts under the Historic District Act of the General Assembly, EL. 282, No. 167 of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of June 1961, amended April 1963. In 1980, Lower Merion Township adopted Ordinance No. 1902 to create two local historic districts. An Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) was then appointed to regulate the districts.

The HARB reviews the appropriateness of proposed "exterior changes visible from a public way" when a building permit is sought for a property in a local historic district. Decision-making is neither arbitrary nor rigid. HARBs throughout the country are guided by The Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation to determine what constitutes an appropriate change.

Lower Merion Township now has five local historic districts regulated by local ordinance under state law. It is important to note that some are also federally designated National Register Historic Districts, National Register districts are not regulated by any local authority, but property owners are urged to follow the Secretary of Interior's Standards for alterations or new construction. If an historic district bears both designations, the HARB becomes involved.

When a new historic district is considered in Lower Merion, members of the HARB will meet with property owners to answer questions. Boundaries for a new district are established by the community, the HARB and the Township.

Documentation of the properties must then be prepared for presentation to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). After a nomination for a proposed district is approved by the PHMC, the Township must hold a public hearing and the Board of Commissioners vote in favor of the nomination. Finally, the PHMC must also vote to approve the district.

Across the nation it is recognized that historic districts not only retain the architectural integrity of a community, but also generally stabilize vulnerable areas. The only real protection against inappropriate changes or demolition of an historic property is by inclusion in an historic district that falls under the review of an Historical Architectural Review Board.

Lower Merion Township historic districts include:

Local districts:

  • Ardmore Business
  • Merion Friends Meeting/General Wayne Inn
  • Haverford Station
  • English Village

Local and National Register districts:

  • Harriton
  • Gladwyne
  • Mill Creek

National Register districts:

  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Mill Creek Extension
  • West Laurel Hill Cemetery

THE LOWER MERION TOWNSHIP HISTORIC DISTRICT ORDINANCE

DOES:

  1. permit the designation of areas as historic districts
  2. require the Board of Commissioners to act on all proposed designations
  3. establish an Historical Architectural Review Board of qualified local property owners
  4. spell out procedures for HARB review of proposed projects in historic districts
  5. utilize The Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation as a guideline for decisions made by the HARB
  6. provide guidelines for proposed work
  7. provide professional advice from the HARB
  8. consider economic materials for proposed work during HARB review
  9. allow the HARB to review conceptual or sketch plans, a cost-saving provision
  10. encourage consideration of preservation alternatives
  11. protect historic properties from inappropriate renovation
  12. encourage appropriate sensitive design
  13. help maintain the unique character of a designated area
  14. allow area residents a voice in change in their neighborhood districts
  15. encourage pride in older neighborhoods
  16. help stabilize property values in designated areas
  17. become activated in historic districts when a building permit is sought
  18. provide procedure for review of proposed demolition
  19. provide an appeals process

DOES NOT:

  1. force designation of properties
  2. give control of property to the HARB or the Township
  3. change permitted uses of properties
  4. require restoration or changes
  5. require HARB review for exact replacement of existing materials
  6. require HARB review for any interior changes or exterior work not seen from a public right of way
  7. add costs to owning a property
  8. prevent maintenance
  9. stop remodeling or additions
  10. prevent new construction
  11. discourage energy conservation measures
  12. prevent landscaping
  13. prevent demolition
  14. affect taxes
  15. lower property values

HARB BRIEF (rev 6/08)