WILMINGTON — Residents, visitors, businesses, and city officials all commonly refer to an area of downtown Wilmington as the “historic district,” but there are actually numerous districts, covering a larger area than many people recognize, and that come with their own particular rules and regulations.
The city defines the districts as “an area designated as having aesthetic, architectural, historical, cultural, or archaeological significance that is worthy of protection and preservation. Wilmington has one of the state’s largest historic districts, which was established to help protect and maintain the historic fabric of the community, as well as to ensure that new development is compatible with our historic character.”
The historic districts have particular requirements to be “up to code” that are more specific than the city’s regular codes; the city requires advanced notice – and formal approval – before homeowners make changes to their homes. According to Wilmington Spokesperson Malissa Talbert, the goal of these requirements is to “to preserve our historic buildings and affordable housing.”
But it’s not just residents who move into historic areas that need to be up to code – on numerous occasions, most recently in 2014, the city has expanded or created entirely new historic districts.
Where and when the districts were formed
The city has around 15 different historic districts and, although most are in the downtown area, they are also found along Market Street as far west as 21st Street –- there are also two satellite historic districts, one in Sunset Park, south of Greenfield Lake, and one on in Intracoastal on Masonoboro Sound.
There are “National Register Districts” and local historic districts – the city has a vested interest in both, but the majority of the special historic code requirements are for the local districts, although property owners must give 90 days notice before demolishing a structure in the national register district. In downtown Wilmington, the two districts frequently overlap.
The city’s first historic district – “the historic buildings district” — was created in 1964, and covered a relatively small area south of Market Street. According to Talbert, the district was established during the “nationwide urban renewal initiative when many historic buildings were being demolished in what was thought at the time to be good for economic development through new construction.”
A decade later, the general Wilmington historic district was created, covering much of the traditional “downtown” area; it was expanded in 2003 and now stretches from Greenfield Lake to Martin Luther King Boulevard, and from the riverfront to 15th Street.
Other areas were added, especially after 2000; the city also added overlay and mixed-use districts, which allow businesses in addition to residences.
What are the requirements?
The main difference between Wilmington’s general building codes and those in the historic districts are, not surprisingly, those rules ensuring that buildings maintain what the city refers to as their “historic character.”
Decisions about what is – and is not – in keeping with “historic character” are made by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The HPC bases decisions based on the Wilmington Design Guidelines, created in 1999; the city is currently drafting new guidelines based on a draft prepared by the HPC.
The Design Guidelines are a 126-page document, which offers historical background and suggestions for what is and is not “appropriate” — a definition which often recursively refers to a site’s “historic character.” In other words, while some specific things are defined as inappropriate — for example, oriental or southwestern style gardens, or satellite dishes visible from the — many of the guidelines simply state that work shouldn’t interfere with the “historical appearance” of the site.
Talbert said anyone uncertain of the exact requirements should contact the city before doing work – but she did clarify that only exterior work required approval (the interior of a residence can be as modern as desired, a right protected by North Carolina state statute).
The HPC has two categories of approval, a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), required for “major work,” and “Administrative Bypass,” intended for more minor work.
A COA application costs between $20 and $100, depending on the size of the project, and must be filed at least 30 days prior to an HPC meeting, which is held on the second Thursday of each month. At the meetings, HPC members consider whether or not to grant a COA.
The city gave the following examples of work requiring a COA:
- Swimming pools
- Roofs, windows, and doors
- Exterior siding and decorative woodworking
- Porches and entrances
- Architectural metal
- New construction
- Storefront changes
- Relocation of buildings and structures
- Additions or Demolitions
- Major landscaping
- Fences and walls on corner lots
- Garages and other accessory structures
- Parking lots
- Exterior Alterations
The city’s Administrative Bypass procedure gives the city’s Historic Planner the ability to approve minor work and extended current COAs.
Examples of “Minor Works Requiring” an Administrative Bypass, according to the city:
- Storm doors and windows
- Fences (except corner lots)
- Shutters and blinds
- Primer/paint colors
- Garage doors
- Satellite dishes
- Walkways, paths, driveways and patios
- Handicap facilities
- Roofing materials
- Garden sheds
- Rear yard decks
- Removal of asbestos siding
- Restoration of original features and/or materials
- Minor landscaping and exterior alterations
Enforcement and fines
According to Talbert, “There is no difference in how we enforce the code within the various districts than the rest of the city, but there are additional restrictions that are designed to protect and preserve the homes and maintain the historic character of the districts.”
The city detects code violation both through regular reviews of historic properties, and also through complaints. Talbert said code enforcement officers try to do “proactive reviews” to inform residents and property owners of requirements before any work is done.
For residents who have repairs that haven’t been completed, or who have done work that doesn’t meet the city’s approval, violations are sent out.
According to Talbert, “For most violations, the owner has 30 days to respond – that doesn’t necessarily mean coming into compliance, but it does mean getting in touch with the city and making sure staff know that the owner or occupant is making a good faith effort to comply.
Talbert added, “We would prefer to work with property owners and help them as much as possible – we will often give extensions after speaking with the owner or occupant if we know they are trying to come into compliance. From the city’s perspective, receiving money from fines is not nearly as important as protecting and preserving the historic character of the property.”
In those cases where the property isn’t brought into compliance, the property owners – who are responsible, not tenants – can be fined between $100 and $200 a day.
For those that can’t afford required changes, Talbert said the “city has home minor repair and rehabilitation loans available to qualifying applicants that may help owners bring their properties into compliance, and staff are available to provide information about dealing with historic structures.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.