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Historic District

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Historic Districts are areas defined by historic, architectural and/or cultural significance. Chapel Hill’s historic districts embody important elements of social, economic, political, or architectural history of the community.  The community has designated these special areas in an effort to protect and conserve historic neighborhoods and individual sites through historic preservation.   

Local Historic Districts
National Register of Historic Places

What is the Historic District Commission?

State statute gives municipalities the authority to create a historic preservation commission to manage local historic districts and landmarks, and issue Certificates of Appropriateness (COA). Before issuing or denying any COA, the Commission must adopt rules of procedure and Design Guidelines.

The Historic District Commission has the responsibility of guiding physical change within the historic districts of Chapel Hill in such a way as to promote, enhance, and preserve the character of the districts. For additional information about the Historic District Commission, click here.   

Historic District Commission Rules of Procedure

Does the Historic District Commission regulate landscaping?

The location of a building in relation to its site as well as the larger setting of the neighborhood contributes to the character of the district. The natural topography, vernacular or designed landscape elements, and vegetation may contribute to the historical significance of a site or the district as a whole. The Commission does not have regulatory authority over landscaping, except to preserve Significant Site Features.

Significant site features are those that have been found to contribute to the character of the site. These may include:
• Rock retaining walls
• Circulation systems such as walks, paths, roadways, parking
• Open spaces such as fields or parks
• Historic formal gardens created by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist
• Water features
• Arrangements of plantings such as an allée of trees which may be found to be historically significant

Does the Historic District Commission (HDC) regulate paint color?

No, the Commission does not regulate paint color.

What happens at a Historic District Commission meeting and what is my role as the applicant or homeowner?

Each month, staff publishes the agenda at least 10 business days prior to the meeting on the Town’s website. The agenda shows the order of all items the Commission will be discussing and includes links to application materials.

The agenda is then used during the meeting. After the Chair calls the meeting to order, the Commission typically go through a number of administrative or housekeeping items, including reading the public charge and procedures, taking a roll call of members, announcements, and approval of previous minutes. There is also an opportunity for the public to submit petitions.

Because the HDC is a quasi-judicial body, anyone wishing to speak on an item must be sworn in. The Staff Liaison typically does this at the beginning of each meeting. It is your responsibility as an applicant to make sure you have been sworn, and to state such before beginning your presentation or giving testimony.

The projects on the Consent Agenda are the first to be reviewed. These projects are typically small scale projects that staff and the Chair have deemed to be relatively uncomplicated and will not require discussion by the Commission. Typically, the Commission approves the Consent Agenda without opening a public hearing, but there is always an opportunity to do so if a member of the public or a Commission member has concerns or questions about any particular project that is on the Consent Agenda. Typically the applicant does not need to prepare anything for the meeting in these cases, but we recommend that you are prepared to answer questions about your project in case the Commission decides to open a public hearing.

Next on the agenda are Old Business items. These projects usually have been continued from a previous meeting, either because the Commission asked the applicant for additional information or other circumstances have caused a continuation.

Following those, there are New Business items. If your project is on this list, you will need to be prepared with a presentation to introduce your project to the Board. Applicants typically use PowerPoint presentations to show site plans, pictures, justification, and how the project meets specific Design Guidelines (see below for more information about the Design Guidelines). After your presentation, the Commission may ask you additional questions about the project, before inviting members of the public to speak. After all members of the public have spoken, the Commission will close the public hearing and go into discussion, where they will make findings of fact regarding the project and determine if it meets the Design Guidelines. The Commission will then make a motion to approve or deny the Certificate of Appropriateness, or to continue the public hearing to a later meeting date if they have additional questions or would like to see more information.

If your project is approved, you should expect to receive notification from staff that your signed Certificate of Appropriateness and approval letter are ready to be picked up within about a week of the meeting. If you have questions about what additional permits might be required, please check with staff.

View agendas, minutes, and videos

I’ve heard the Historic District Commission (HDC) is a quasi-judicial body. What does this mean?

You may be familiar with Town Council and other advisory board meetings, which are typically legislative in nature. Legislative decisions on items such as re-zonings, text amendments, and more, are decisions that establish policies and are made at the discretion of Town Council. Quasi-judicial (and administrative) decisions, apply those policies to specific situations. Quasi-judicial meetings, as the name conveys, is more court-like in nature. Quasi-judicial proceedings require the board to interpret the law to make judgements on a case, based on evidence and testimony presented. A board making a quasi-judicial decision must follow the basic standards of due process, such as following proper notice requirements, no ex parte communication, etc. Additionally, any member of the public wishing to speak on a case must be sworn in and is considered a witness presenting evidence and testimony regarding the facts of a case. Because witnesses must be sworn in, anyone wishing to speak about a case must be present (or represented by their attorney) at the meeting. Emails, letters, and other written correspondence will not be considered.

For further reading, we recommend the Quasi-Judicial Handbook: A Guide for Boards Making Development Regulation Decisions by David W. Owens and Adam S. Lovelady.

Who is on the Historic District Commission (HDC)?

The HDC is comprised of volunteers appointed by Town Council. Typically, the Commission makes recommendations to Council after reviewing new applications for membership. All members are Chapel Hill residents, and a majority of members must have demonstrated special interest, experience, or education in history or architecture. If you have more questions about this process or are interested in applying to be on the Commission, please contact advisoryboards@townofchapelhill.org.

How do I apply to be on the Historic District Commission?

The Town is always looking for new applicants to fill vacancies on our advisory boards and commissions, including the Historic District Commission. To apply, please visit our Advisory Boards & Commissions page.

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