All over the country, older neighborhoods are facing changes that undermine their community character —whether incompatible development, the proliferation of vacant parcels of land and parking lots, disinvestment, or commercial encroachment. In an effort to address these changes, local jurisdictions are increasingly turning to neighborhood conservation district programs to protect viable neighborhoods from development pressures and other threats.
Neighborhood conservation districts offer community--based solutions aimed at protecting an area’s distinctive character. Conservation districts have been established to control teardowns, as in Dallas, Tex.; waterfront development, as in Annapolis, Md.; or commercial encroachment, as in Boise, Idaho. Conservation district programs are being used to stabilize existing neighborhoods, as in Nashville, Tenn.; to increase or preserve the supply of affordable housing, as in Phoenix, Ariz.; and to revitalize close--in neighborhoods, as in Davis, Calif.
What Is a Neighborhood Conservation District?
Neighborhood Conservation Districts are areas located in residential neighborhoods with a distinct physical character. Although these neighborhoods tend not to merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land--use attention due to their distinctive character and importance as viable, contributing areas to the community at large.
Conservation district programs require a high level of neighborhood participation and support. Generally they must be initiated by residents within the neighborhood, and a majority of property owners must back the designation. With the assistance of either planning or preservation boards, residents can develop their own design guidelines and establish a neighborhood review board composed of, or with representation from, members of the community to determine if owners’ proposed changes to their properties are acceptable under those guidelines. These programs often also include penalties for violating the terms of the ordinance (from fines to reconstruction requirements) as well as procedures for appeals and for enforcement.
Conservation Districts versus Historic Districts
Neighborhood Conservation Districts are both similar to and different from local historic districts. While the desire and commitment to preserve a community’s physical attributes rest at the heart of both programs, the primary focus of neighborhood conservation district programs is to preserve community character rather than historic fabric, per se. While historic district programs generally rely exclusively on design review to accomplish preservation goals, neighborhood conservation districts, especially those developed under planning programs, may include development controls as well as, or in lieu of, design review.
Today, many communities are looking to neighborhood conservation districts to supplement their local historic preservation programs. Conservation districts provide another way to protect older residential neighborhoods that may not qualify for historic designation under a local preservation ordinance or for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, or that simply are not ready for historic designation.
Types of Conservation Districts
The key feature of conservation districts is variety. No two are alike, because each is tailored to address the concerns of an individual neighborhood. That being said, conservation district programs are often described as falling within the “historic preservation model” or the “neighborhood planning model.” The historic preservation model focuses on preserving the physical attributes of a neighborhood by addressing changes that could adversely affect its architectural character. Neighborhoods protected under this approach often include a high concentration of older structures that share a cohesive quality through a common architectural style or building form such as the rowhouse, or because they date from a particular period of time. Sometimes a neighborhood, although historic, may not be eligible for designation as a historic district due to incompatible alterations. Other times, the houses may not be architecturally significant enough or be too new to merit historic designation. In yet other situations, conservation districts may be favored over historic designation because residential support for stricter controls is lacking. Physical changes to a neighborhood, such as the construction of additions, new houses, and demolition, are generally subject to review and approval by a historic preservation commission or a specially appointed neighborhood commission, which may include members of a historic preservation commission. However, in contrast to historic preservation regulations, alterations to existing structures tend to be subject to less stringent standards of review or, in some cases, excused from review altogether. New construction projects, including additions, are frequently evaluated under standards that emphasize compatible development in terms of size or massing rather than specific architectural features.
The neighborhood planning model also focuses on preserving a neighborhood’s unique character. However, conservation goals are accomplished by examining matters typically addressed through zoning and neighborhood planning laws, such as lot coverage, setback requirements, and permitted uses, as well as, or in lieu of, design. By regulating new construction or even serving as a catalyst for new construction, this approach provides a neighborhood-- level land--use tool that can preserve neighborhood character, retain affordable housing, and protect an area from the potentially harmful effects of more intensive or inappropriate development.
The distinctions between preservation--based and planning based conservation districts are becoming less apparent as communities look for and develop solutions that respond to the specific needs of individual neighborhoods. Conservation district ordinances adopted in Dallas, Tex., and Boulder, Colo., for example, have incorporated both development restrictions and design controls to remove underlying pressures for incompatible development and, at the same time, encourage contextually appropriate projects.
The Neighborhood Conservation District Ordinance
The primary mechanism for establishing a conservation district is the “neighborhood conservation district ordinance.” As with historic districts, conservation districts are generally established by ordinance upon the review and recommendation of a preservation or planning board. Neighborhood conservation districts must meet specific criteria for designation and property owners are provided with both notice and the opportunity to be heard. The process for reviewing changes to properties upon designation, however, can vary significantly depending upon the agency charged with administering the program and the standards for review.
Do They Work?
Currently some 30 U.S. cities have one or more neighborhood conservation districts. While meaningful studies on the effectiveness of conservation districts as a neighborhood conservation tool have yet to come, initial reports are promising. In Phoenix, conservation districts are said to have stemmed the tide of incompatible development, particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to high-rise commercial development. Those in the Iowa City planning department say that they preserve neighborhood pride, local character, and property values. Residents in Dallas feel they retain greater control over their properties. Nashville’s six conservation districts have had success in holding off major commercial encroachment, guiding sensitive small business expansion into previously residential contexts, reducing the number of absentee landlords, and increasing homeownership and property values.
The apparent success of conservation districts can be attributed in part to the program’s high emphasis on citizen participation. Through the development of the neighborhood plans, residents are required to think about the qualities of their neighborhood that make it special. They must also think about what is wrong and how those wrongs can be corrected. By being put in the driver’s seat, residents have come to appreciate their own neighborhoods and, correspondingly, have chosen to accept necessary restrictions for the benefit of the community overall.
Probably the most significant, and yet unresolved, issues from a historic perspective are (1) how to distinguish conservation districts from historic districts, and (2) whether it is appropriate to designate a residential neighborhood as a conservation district when it meets the criteria for designation as a historic district. While there are numerous instances in which conservation district designation provides a viable tool for protecting the special character of older neighborhoods, conservation district laws generally do not provide the same level of scrutiny or protection for historic resources as do many historic preservation laws.
Thus far, it appears that most conservation district programs have been specifically designed to complement rather than replace historic preservation programs. Communities have worked hard to develop standards to ensure that historic areas qualifying for protection under historic preservation ordinances are designated as historic districts rather than conservation districts.
In practice, however, it cannot be ignored that there are neighborhoods designated as conservation districts that are similar to other neighborhoods protected under historic preservation laws. In some cases this distinction in treatment can be attributed to differing standards for designation under local laws. In most cases, however, the differing approaches stem less from varying laws and more from the amount of grassroots support.
Publication Date: November/December 2004