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Historic Districts

How They Work for Your Community

What is a Historic District?
"A historic district means a significant concentration, linkage or continuity of sites, buildings, structures that are united historically, geographically or aesthetically by plan or physical development and that have a special character, historical interest, cultural or aesthetic value, or that represent one or more architectural periods in the history and development of the City of San Diego."

What is the purpose of a Historic District?
To maintain, protect and preserve the scale and basic character and salient architectural details of homes within a historical district. A historical district is not a static museum, but rather a living, changing neighborhood. There is room for private renewal and architectural creativity, within appropriate controls and standards. Historical designation in a neighborhood will encourage continuous research into a community's human past and culture for the benefit of future generations and protect our high-quality architecture, mature landscaping and pedestrian orientation of our historic community by denying demolition of existing older homes to simply build out-of-scale super-houses that overwhelm the neighborhood. The character of a neighborhood is threatened by the 'teardown' phenomenon, which is destroying the architecture and heritage of a community. A historic district will provide protection from demolition, insensitive alterations and out-of-character new construction and emphasize the value of the historic neighborhood.

Why a historic district at this time?
A disturbing trend has spread across America's older and historic neighborhoods such as Mission Hills, La Jolla, and Coronado to demolish or 'teardown' older homes. A 'teardown' refers to the practice of demolishing an existing house to make way for a dramatically large new home on the same lot. This unfortunate practice has become such an epidemic in our country that the National Trust has listed 'Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods' on its 2002 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The impacts of 'teardown' on historic neighborhoods is twofold: First, as fine historic homes are reduced to rubble to make way for much larger new houses, the architectural and cultural heritage of our communities is eroded and forever changed. Second, the massive, out-of-scale structures that are being built to replace older homes do not fit well in historic neighborhoods and threaten the very qualities that make these neighborhoods attractive and desirable. In most cases, small older homes are being torn down and replaced with new houses three times their size. This greatly increased square footage (an average new 'McMansion' is over 3,000 sq ft) results in tall, bulky structures that loom over adjacent homes and break the established building pattern of the community. Front yards are often given to large three car garages and driveways. The livability of historic neighborhoods is eroded and in many cases, these new 'Monster Homes' block views and eliminate side and back yards.

Furthermore, through a designated Traditional Historic District, residents strive to preserve for future generations the fine homes that draw people to such communities. This helps to preserve architectural detailing, the use of high-quality materials, craftsmanship, historic character and charm. These are the same qualities that still matter to many buyers looking for homes in historic neighborhoods. While historic designation does not freeze development, it does help to ensure that any enlargements or additions to existing homes are done with sensitivity and in a manner consistent with the historical guidelines that will be created. (Reference: "Protecting America's Historic Neighborhoods: Taming the Teardown Trend" by Adrian Scott Fine and Jim Lindberg)

What are the benefits of residing in a historic district?
There are several benefits for maintaining and preserving one of San Diego's early communities for future generations and for 'contributing' homes. The Mills Act can significantly reduce property taxes. The National Trust states that historically designated residential districts enjoy 10-25% higher property values versus similar homes without historic designation. Some historic districts such as 'Bungalow Heaven' in Pasadena raise thousands of dollars each year for their neighborhood association through voluntary home tours, which continue to publicize the benefits of living in that community.

What is the Mills Act?
The statewide preservation law enacted by former State Senator Jim Mills that allows for a significant reduction in the property taxes of designated historic a 30-70% reduction in property taxes through the use of the Mills Act.

What is a contributing home?
There are basically three categories of homes within a historic district. The first type is a 'contributing' site, i.e. one that contributes to the historic district. These homes must meet the significance characteristics of a district and must be specifically designated historic resources. These sites shall be eligible for all benefits and responsibilities of historical designation.

The second is called a 'potential contributing' site, one that can be restored to the original character of the design of the home. For example, a home may apply to become 'contributing' when the homeowner replaces aluminum windows with appropriate wood windows.

The third type of home is a 'non-contributing' site, which is either a new home or a home that has been remodeled beyond its original design. This type of house has been substantially modified so that they no longer contribute to the historical integrity of the district. These sites are not eligible for the benefits resulting from historical designation, except if the owner subsequently restores original historic fabric and features making it a contributing site. In these cases, the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) will hold a public hearing where the status of the site from non-contributing to contributing can be assessed and approved. This type of home would not be eligible for the Mills Act, but would enjoy the benefit of being in a historic district.

District Features
The Historical Resources Board will determine, upon designation of a Historical District, those features and characteristics deemed essential to the maintenance of the district's architectural and/or historical integrity.

How do I apply for the Mills Act if there is a Historic District?
Submit a request and pay a one-time fee based upon the value of your home. You will receive a Mills Act Contract from the County, with a term of ten years. This contract goes with the property when it is sold, allowing the new owner to take advantage of the reduced property taxes without having to re-apply. This also becomes a great selling point when/if you sell your home.

What are my responsibilities if my neighborhood becomes a Traditional City of San Diego Historical District?
A permit would be needed before doing any major alterations to the exterior of your home, such as building an addition or second story, stuccoing over wood siding, removing original porches or removing wood windows and replacing them with aluminum ones. The proposed changes would have to be compatible with the style or character of your home, so that it would continue to maintain the historic appearance of the house. You currently have to obtain a permit to do these things already.

I do not want any restrictions placed on my use of my property. If I lived in a new house in a subdivision, I wouldn't have any restrictions.
That is not the case; you are always required to comply with zoning, health, safety and building codes. Also, virtually all newer subdivisions and housing tracts have stringent design guidelines for paint colors, landscaping, vehicle parking and a multitude of other restrictions. There are frequently CC&Rs, which are a set of rules governing what can be done with your property. Also frequently there are homeowner associations who may tell you what you can or cannot do. With Historic District status, you would still have far fewer restrictions on property alterations than most new homes.

How can it help me if I vote for a Historic District?
One large benefit is that other property owners in the district will also be regulated by the same standards that you would be. This means that the house next door is not going to undergo radical alterations, which can be unattractive and inappropriate to an older community, and which may ultimately cause your property to lose value and make it more difficult were you to sell your home. It provides the protection of keeping the neighborhood style and character, which attracted you to this area in the first place, and which would help to maintain and increase property values and attract other preservation minded people to the community.

Would I have to get a permit to paint my house or to change house colors?
No, but you would be encouraged to contact the City's HRB staff for advise on the best color schemes consistent with the historical period and style of your house. This will increase its value.

Would I be allowed to build an addition to my house?
Yes, as long as the design is sensitive and compatible with the existing house. To reduce the impact of an addition, new construction should be concentrated on the rear (non-public) sides of the house. Although the addition is to be compatible, it should also be differentiated, so as not to be confused with the original elements. Additions and alterations should comply with The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, written by the National Park Service.

Would I be allowed to change the interior?
Yes, historic district status has no effect on the interior of your home, although it would be preferred if alterations comply with The Secretary of the Interior's Standards. You would still have to obtain permits for electrical, plumbing or structural changes as you currently do.

Would the public have access to my house, once it is historic?
No. Your decision to showcase your home at any given time is entirely up to you.

Can I change the landscaping?
Yes, the historical designation does not include your yard. There are currently City codes concerning the height and placement of fences and those would remain the same. In some instances, the fence code provides more latitude in a historic district. However, you would be advised to contact city historical staff for guidance on the best plant materials you can use consistent with the historical period of your home.

Would the Historic District affect the zoning or density of my lot?
No, those things would still be subject to the zoning codes currently in force.


Editors note: Thanks to contributors Allen Hazard, Janet O'Dea, David Marshall, Bruce Coons, Barry Hager and the City of San Diego.

2003 - Volume 34, Issue 2

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