Frequently Asked Questions about Local Historic District designation
In an effort to help clear up confusion about proposed changes to the portion of the City’s historic preservation ordinance that deals with designation of local historic districts, St. Petersburg Preservation offers the following answers to several frequently asked questions.
Overview of local historic districts
What is the difference between Local Historic Register designation and National Register designation?
A National Register designation is purely honorary and offers no protection for districts or landmarks. Local landmark or district designation offers protection against demolition and insensitive alterations through a certificate of approval process.
What is the process for designating a local historic district in St. Petersburg?
First, an application must be submitted to the city for consideration by the City Council. This is usually done by a neighborhood association or group of interested citizens after an extensive education campaign directed towards property owners in the potential district. In order for an application to be submitted, a solid majority of property owners within the proposed district must give their consent via a written ballot.
Once an application is submitted, a public hearing process begins. Individual notices are mailed to all property owners on at least two occasions, and a minimum of two public hearings must be held. Additionally there is a first and second ordinance reading at city council, which must occur on separate dates.
After that, City Council votes on whether or not the area should be designated as a local historic district. In making its decision, Council will weigh many factors, including historic significance, architectural integrity, and the degree of property owner support in the district.
What are the current voting requirements?
Currently, there is a requirement in the historic preservation ordinance that 66% of all property owners in a proposed district vote “yes” to the submission of an historic district application. Non-responses are counted as a “no” vote.
The important thing to note here is that the vote itself does not grant local historic district status. It simply allows an application to be filed with the city. This then triggers a series of public hearings and ultimately a vote by City Council on whether or not to grant historic district designation.
So a favorable vote by property owners doesn't mean my neighborhood automatically becomes a historic district?
Correct. City Council makes the final decision after several public hearings with property owners. A factor in their decision will be the degree of property owner support.
Proposed changes to the process for applying to become a historic district
What is the proposed change to the voting requirements for a neighborhood to start the application process?
Mayor Rick Kriseman and city staff are recommending that only those property owners that vote are counted in the future, just like in any other democratic voting process. Non-responses would no longer be counted as a “no” vote.
City Council members and city staffers are discussing what an acceptable threshold should be for the application process to begin, in terms of the percentage of respondents that would need to vote “yes.”
How many local historic districts does the city currently have?
Three. Historic Roser Park was designated in 1987 and has 68 properties in the district. Granada Terrace was designated in 1988 and has 69 properties. Lang’s Bungalow Court was designated in 2014 and has 13 properties in the district.
Why the current system isn’t working
If we have three local districts already designated, clearly the system isn’t broken. Why mess with it?
It is broken. Notice that there was a gap of 26 years between the most recent designation in 2014 and the previous one in 1988. Note also that all three districts are modest in size, with 69 properties in the largest one and only 13 in the smallest. This is because the current voting requirements make designation of larger districts virtually impossible.
Other neighborhoods have considered beginning the process but have realized that the ratios are so insurmountable that their efforts would be worthless. In a neighborhood of any significant size, the percentage of required responses quickly becomes unmanageable, particularly because of the large number of absentee owners in St. Petersburg. For example, the Old Northeast had a 28% absentee owner ratio in 2006 when that neighborhood attempted to submit a local historic district application.
Is this really all about the Old Northeast?
No. This is an attempt to fix a process that could benefit a number of historic neighborhoods in the city.
There has been a significant amount of discussion about the Old Northeast because of its attempt in 2006 to have an application for local historic district designation submitted. The neighborhood provides a good example of how it is virtually impossible to designate a neighborhood of any significant size.
Why is the Old Northeast a good example of how the system is broken?
There were 2,202 properties within the boundaries of the proposed Old Northeast local historic district. Fifty-two percent of those properties submitted a vote. Of those responses, 85% voted YES to submission of the application, and just 15% voted NO (969 “yes” votes vs. 167 “no” votes.)
But because every owner that did not respond was counted as a “no” vote, the initiative failed, in spite of the overwhelming majority of yes votes submitted. This is an example of a small minority of property owners (167 out of 2,202) making a decision for everyone in their neighborhood.
Status of preservation efforts in the city
Are there other examples of neighborhoods that have tried to obtain local historic designation but failed?
No, but there have been several that have expressed interest in the possibility. They have concluded that the task is impossible based on the insurmountable hurdle of the vote. Aside from the successful application of Lang’s Bungalow Court (a neighborhood of just 13 homes) the Old Northeast is the only neighborhood that has attempted to submit an application in the past 26 years.
Notably, however, the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association and the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association encountered a similar problem when attempting to designate their neighborhoods as Artists Enclave Districts. The two designation processes are the same, each requiring 66% voter approval by property owners in the district before an application may be submitted.
There were 1,601 owners in the proposed Kenwood artist enclave district. 52% of them voted. 95% of the votes were YES votes, and 5% were NO (796 “yes” votes vs. 42 “no” votes.) Again, the effort failed despite the clear mandate of responding voters to designate the district. It’s another illustration of how a small minority of property owners (42 out of 1601) made a decision for their entire neighborhood.
Ultimately, an individual member of City Council initiated the applications to designate Historic Kenwood and the Old Southeast as artists enclave districts, a process that bypasses the neighborhood vote. The measures passed unanimously at City Council.
Is the Old Northeast or any other neighborhood currently in the process of seeking historic designation?
No. An intensive education campaign to inform residents about the benefits and responsibilities of designation normally occurs before a neighborhood officially applies. There are no such campaigns currently happening in St. Petersburg that we are aware of.
How residents are affected in a historic district
So, if my neighborhood were designated as a local historic district, how would I be affected?
The characteristics that probably drew you to the area in the first place would be protected. Notably, you will not be told what color you can paint your house, what type of landscaping you can install or what can be done inside your house. You can still build a vinyl fence, you can still add an addition or garage and you will still be able to obtain homeowners insurance. You may still lease or rent your property.
If you wanted to demolish your home or significantly alter the exterior characteristics of your home you would go through a “certificate of approval” process for those requested changes.
Are these requirements only in place if you live in a historic home? What if you live in a historic district but live in a house built, say, in the ‘80s?
All homes within a proposed district are subject to the COA process, regardless of their age. However, homes that are considered “non-contributing” (i.e. are not historic or architecturally significant) are not held to the same standards as those that are considered “contributing” to the district.
In a historic district, how are requests for making alterations to a home handled?
Most of those requests for alteration are handled by in-house staff and there is a 97% approval rating of these requests. Demolition requests and large-scale alterations are heard by the Community Planning and Preservation Commission. Click here for more information.
These guidelines are similar to the zoning requirements that we are already accustomed to, like the extensive city guidelines on fence requirements in any neighborhood, for example. They aim to prevent the sort of changes that over time can erode the character of a neighborhood.
The city has created a very helpful FAQ detailing how the certificate of approval process works. You can access it here.
Why would a neighborhood want to become a local historic district anyway?
Because it helps preserve the character of an historic neighborhood, which is often the very thing that makes that neighborhood desirable. Numerous studies have shown that historic districts hold their value better than non-designated areas. And there are a host of tax benefits that properties in local historic districts can take advantage of.
How do other cities handle this? What are the “accepted best practices?”
Most cities do not require a neighborhood vote to start the application process, opting instead for a lengthy review process of potential local historic districts by an expert panel comprised of architects, historians, local business leaders, and city officials. For example, in Massachusetts (a state that knows a thing or two about history) any neighborhood can apply for local historic designation, triggering an 18-month review by a qualified panel of experts.
Other proposed changes to the historic preservation ordinance
Are there other significant changes being considered for the historic preservation ordinance?
There are a number of other changes, mostly minor in nature and procedural. But in one significant area of the ordinance, the city is proposing that landmark applications not be allowed after site plan approval has been granted (typically a step in downtown development projects). St. Petersburg Preservation is not opposed to this change if a notice provision is included so that interested parties can be advised if a site plan application is being submitted for a historic building.
How do I learn more, or make my opinions known?
What if I want to learn more about these issues?
Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we would be glad to offer more details by email or in a conversation. Or you can contact the city's historic preservation office at 893-7872.