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National, State, and Local Historic Markers

At PA, we have heard on more than one occasion that a house, building, or neighborhood is protected because it is on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Although the NRHP designation is given by the National Park Service, it does not provide any protection for historic resources unless the property is being impacted by the actions of a Federal agency. With historic designations at the local, state, and national level, it is easy to confuse what they all mean and how they are different. All three are separate designations by three different governmental bodies. You may find a building or house with only one, or two, or all three designations. It is important to understand all three designations when you are in the world of historic preservation.

A City of Austin historic designation is recommended by the Historic Landmark Commission and approved by the Austin City Council, and this is the only one that will prevent a structure from demolition or inappropriate changes. This designation also provides tax benefits to the property owner. Once a building is designated historic, you are not allowed to change the exterior of the structure without a “certificate of appropriateness” issued by the Landmark Commission. The historic zoning designation is an “overlay” zoning, so you keep your regular or base zoning designation, but if designated historic, your zoning becomes base plus historic. For example, a Single Family 3 or “SF 3” designation becomes “SF3-H” when the house is assigned a historic designation.

In addition to designating individual properties, the City can approve historic zoning for an entire neighborhood as a Local Historic District (LHD). LHDs are geographically-defined areas with a significant concentration of buildings united by their history and/or architecture. In Austin LHD designation offers the strongest protection and greatest benefit for older neighborhoods through the adoption of design standards and review requirements. Changes to contributing properties and new construction in the LHD must be approved by the Historic Landmark Commission using these standards. Properties in Local Historic Districts are indicated by the addition of "HD" in the zoning classification for each parcel located in the boundaries of the district (e.g.  SF3-HD). Currently there are three LHDs in Austin; Castle Hill, Hyde Park and Harthan Street. Owners of contributing properties can apply for property tax abatements if they are carrying out major rehabilitation of their property.

The State of Texas historical markers are approved by the Texas Historical Commission (THC). These identify significant places, people, and events that have been important in Travis County , Austin and/or Texas history. There are two types of markers, subject markers that document important events or people in Texas history, and Recorded Texas Historical Landmark (RTHL) markers placed at properties with RTHL designation. RTHL designation is awarded to historically and architecturally significant buildings and structures at least 50 years old. The process for designation as an RTHL is via the Texas Historical Marker program, and requires nominations be submitted by the Travis County Historical Commission. Owners of RTHL properties must notify the THC 60 days in advance of making exterior changes to allow for consultation with the THC. If inappropriate changes are made to these properties the RTHL designation may be removed.

The THC also designated properties and State Antiquities Landmarks (SAL). SAL properties must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are subject to the Antiquities Code of Texas. Owners of SAL properties must obtain a permit from the THC prior to removing, altering, damaging, salvaging or excavating any features of the property. If a property cannot be preserved it must be properly documented.

The NRHP designation is a federal program administered in our state by the THC in coordination with the National Park Service (NPS). Listing on the National Register provides national recognition of a property’s historical or architectural significance and denotes that it is worthy of preservation. Under federal law, owners of private property listed on the National Register are free to maintain, manage, or dispose of their property as they choose provided there is no Federal involvement. Many states and communities use a National Register listing as the backbone of their planning process and designation criteria. However, it is largely an honorific recognition. Properties can be individually listed on the NRHP or neighborhoods or large areas of a community can be listed as National Register Districts.

This should clear up the differences for you, but if you want to read more about historic designations, here are some links to follow:
City of Austin
Travis County Historical Commission (part of the THC)
Texas Historical Commission
National Register of Historic Places