Monday, July 22, 2024

Welcome to Wilmington: Newcomers’ guide to living in the Historic District(s)

In the Welcome to Wilmington series, Port City Daily will take a look at some things new residents might be asking when they first get here. This week we examine the rules and regulations that residents face when moving into one of the city's historic districts.

1804 Market Street hosts the historic Foltz-Gibson house. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Downtown Wilmington is full of historic homes but for those wanting to live in one, you better know what is permitted, and what is not before investing in a historic district. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON — Downtown Wilmington is known for its historic feel, with brick paved streets and old southern mansions, there is an appeal for new residents to make the decision to move to one of Wilmington’s historic districts. But unlike other places in and around Wilmington, the city’s historic districts have strict regulations dictating what can and cannot be built here.

Leading the charge in preserving the city’s historic districts is the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).

“The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is a nine-member board appointed by the City Council to ‘promote, enhance and preserve the character of the Wilmington historic districts.’ The HPC hears and decides requests for Certificates of Appropriateness in accordance with the adopted Wilmington Design Guidelines for Historic Districts and Landmarks,” according to the City of Wilmington’s website.

So what does this mean for homeowners? Well, any exterior changes, be it fencing or a new roof must be approved by the city before installation takes place.

As to why the city is so determined to preserve its history, Wilmington spokeswoman Malissa Talbert said, “Wilmington has one of the state’s largest historic districts, which was established to help protect and maintain the unique historic fabric of our city. The structures within these districts preserve our history for our residents and draw thousands of visitors to our city each year. The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is appointed by the Wilmington City Council to promote, enhance and preserve the character of the Wilmington historic districts.”

Related: Here’s how Wilmington’s many historic districts and their code requirements work

Where are the historic districts?

The historic districts in Wilmington (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wilmington)
The historic districts in Wilmington (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wilmington)

There are two main types of historic districts in Wilmington, the National Register Historic District, and a Local Historic District.

As shown on the map, the majority of the historic districts are National Register districts with the locations just east of the Central Business District considered Local Historic Districts.

Both districts have their own requirements for home modifications. But for those failing to get city approval, fixing the problem can get cumbersome and expensive fast.


In order to make any changes to a historic district home, owners are required, in general, to get what is known as a certificate of appropriateness.

According to the City of Wilmington, “A Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) is required before any building or structure, significant landscape feature or above-ground utility structure can be erected, altered, relocated or demolished. These types of changes must be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Commission in order to obtain a COA.”

Items that would require a COA include:

  • Decks and swimming pools
  • Lighting
  • Roofs
  • Windows and doors
  • Painting masonry
  • Exterior siding and decorative woodwork
  • Porches and entrances
  • Architectural metals
  • New construction—residential and commercial
  • Additions
  • Storefronts
  • Relocation of buildings and structures
  • Demolitions
  • Major landscaping
  • Fences and walls less than 3 feet high 6 feet high or higher on corner lots
  • Garages and other accessory structures
  • New building and parking lots

For more minor changes to the exterior of properties in these districts, the city’s historic planning staff can issue COA administrative bypasses.

These items include:

  • Storm doors
  • Storm windows
  • Fences (except on corner lots)
  • Shutters or blinds
  • Temporary handicap facilities
  • Primer/paint colors
  • Garage doors
  • Signs
  • Roofing material
  • Awnings
  • Utilitarian garden sheds
  • Minor exterior alterations
  • Rear yard decks
  • Brick walkways, paths, driveways and patios
  • Removal of asbestos siding
  • Restoration of original features
  • Minor landscaping
  • Extension of a Certificate of Appropriateness for six months


Living in a historic district comes with its own set of rules as well as possible consequences if these rules are broken. As many members of the community have found out, going around the Historic Preservation Committee can become costly.

The city’s code enforcement is always on the lookout for potential violations of historic codes but also responds to resident complaints.

On most any meeting agenda for the HPC, you are likely to find after-the-fact requests for approval. This means residents have already completed some sort of modification without permission and is now requesting the committee’s approval.

It can be a risky venture though.

Related: After buying historic downtown house, residents now face violations for previous owners’ additions

If the committee fails to approve the already made changes, homeowners are responsible to bring their additions up to code — even if that means undoing all the work that was already completed.

If the HPC does decide modifications made to a property are not in line with city ordinances, the only remedy property owners can seek is through the city’s Board of Adjustment — but appealing an HPC decision is not cheap or a quick process.

The City’s historic appeal will continue to attract new residents to the area, but new residents wanting to move into a historic home or district should be aware of the potential challenges and regulations they will face.

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