Training for Historic Preservation Commissioners: A Three-Part Series

By Special Contributor posted 03-12-2013 11:14

by Karen Theimer Brown

Read Part Two and Part Three.

 Taneytown Historic District in Maryland | Credit: Taneytown Main Street Manager
At the risk of sounding like the beginning of a familiar joke, a lawyer, a developer, and an architect walk into a room at city hall. They join their colleagues—fellow preservation commissioners all— to hear owners of historic properties present their ideas for new additions or garages, bigger signs, or landscape improvements. Then the commissioners put their heads together and give a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a “maybe” to the applicant. An easy task? Not necessarily.

To do the job well, they need training. But most commissioners are volunteers and have busy professional lives, and they often don’t take the time or have easy access to good training programs.

In Maryland, however, thanks to an online and onsite training program developed by the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions (MAHDC), local commissioners are better equipped to fulfill their statutory roles in a responsive and sensitive way.

MAHDC was formed in 1979 to provide advocacy, training, and program support for historic preservation commissions and local governments across Maryland. MAHDC serves 47 commissions, representing both urban and rural historic districts, local governments, commissioners, residents, and owners of historic properties.

In 2011, recognizing the need for consistent and accessible commissioner training, MAHDC received funding from the Maryland Historical Trust, Preservation Maryland, and the National Trust to develop a two-part training for appointed members and staff of local historic preservation commissions.

The first part of the training program consisted of an online “Preservation Commission 101,” which can be downloaded at To develop the online materials, MAHDC solicited advice from a number of commissioners and staff with "on the ground” insights as to the primary topics that should be included in the training. Critical concepts, legal terminology, and preservation principles that commissioners should know were identified and incorporated into the curriculum. The tutorial was designed in a modular format that can be built on over time as new topics are introduced. The modules are well illustrated with photographs, line drawings, and flow charts. A reference guide provides additional information on the various topics covered in the tutorial.

The tutorial is organized into eight modules:
  • Why Are We Here?
  • Legal Foundations and Fundamentals
  • Designating Historic Properties
  • Treatment of Historic Properties
  • Nuts and Bolts of Historic Preservation Commissions
  • Project Review
  • Special Legal Issues
  • Special Design Issues


The second component of the training program is a series of workshops that build on the online tutorial. These three-hour workshops include an interactive component, such as a design review exercise or a case study. MAHDC partners with a local historic preservation commission to host the workshop. To date, MAHDC has conducted 12 training sessions in Maryland and Delaware with additional courses scheduled for the spring.

The workshops are led by qualified and experienced trainers, who have attended a day-long training session and who meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualification Standards.

By recruiting and training local experts to deliver the workshops, MAHDC is making them more accessible. While the workshops are targeted to commission members and staff, historic property owners, Main Street managers, elected officials, architects, contractors, and anyone who is interested in learning more about issues related to commission operations are invited to attend. For more information about this program, contact MAHDC at

Next week, in Part Two of the series, we will talk to participants about what they learned and how it has influenced their work.

Karen Theimer Brown is the director of the Maryland Association of Historic District Commissions.


#historicpreservationcommissions #Education

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