Historic District Commissions and Historic Property Commissions and the Law

A.    Historic District Commissions and Historic Property Commissions and the Law

Design review authority over most exterior alterations to the buildings or structures within their jurisdiction represents one of the strongest forms of preservation protection under the law. The legal character of HDCs and HPCs constitutes the source and limits of their regulatory authority. By reviewing applications and voting to issue or deny certificates of appropriateness , HDCs and HPCs have the opportunity to make legally binding decisions that ensure that architectural changes in the LHD or LHP are made with respect and consideration for the historic character of the property and the community as a whole.  

As public bodies, HDCs and HPCs  have a responsibility to uphold the public’s constitutional right to due process and equal treatment under the law. State and local laws set forth in detail the rules and procedures an HDC must adhere to in conducting public meetings and in reviewing applications. Failure to follow procedures may result in the overturning of an HDC’s or HPC’s decision by the courts and a loss of credibility for that body. All HDC and HPC members should be familiar with the laws that govern the HDC, should act in accordance with those laws, and should strive to deliver decisions that uphold the mission of local preservation commissions.

The subtitle of Part Two, How To Be Legitimate, is intended to highlight the legal character of HDCs and HPCs, and to guide commissioners through the basic legal framework that affects the commission’s activities. It is not a substitute for professional legal advice.  HDCs and HPCs  should direct any particular issues or concerns to the appropriate municipal attorney or corporation counsel.

The section begins with a consideration of the relevant legislation regarding HDCs and HPCs, then moves to a discussion of related court cases, and concludes with a step-by-stepaccount of the rules of procedure that an HDC or HPC must follow. In addition to the basic requirements for operating legally that are described here, several discretionary powers are granted to HDCs and HPCs in the state statute and local ordinance. The discretionary powers are addressed by example in Part Three of the Handbook, How to Be Effective. [Is this to come? – DRM]