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 are zoning overlay districts created to protect and conserve the heritage and character of Chapel Hill. The Town of Chapel Hill has three local historic districts which include:
- Franklin-Rosemary Historic District (created by the Town Council in 1976)
- Cameron-McCauley Historic District (created by the Town Council in 1990)
- Gimghoul Historic District (created by the Town Council in 1990)
Owners of property within Local Historic Districts are required to receive a Certificate of Appropriateness for exterior changes to their property. This is done to encourage design, whether contemporary or traditional, which is harmonious with the character of the historic district and to ensure, insofar as possible, that buildings or structures in the historic district be in harmony with other buildings or structures located therein.
The Town of Chapel Hill has five National Register Historic Districts which include:
- Chapel Hill Historic District (designated in 1971) and Chapel Hill Historic District Boundary Increase and Additional Documentation (2015)
- Old Chapel Hill Cemetery (designated in 1994)
The owner of a property in the National Register Historic District is not required to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness for changes unless the property is also located within a local historic district.
For more information about National Register Historic Districts, please contact the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office.
- Historic District Commission
- Certificate of Appropriateness (COA)
- Design Guidelines for Chapel Hill Historic Districts
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
When do I need a COA?
The Chapel Hill Land Use Management Ordinance Section 3.6.2 specifies the types of projects that require a Certificate of Appropriateness:
No exterior portion of any building or other structure…or any above ground utility structure, or any type of outdoor advertising sign shall be erected, altered, restored, moved, or demolished within the historic district until an application for a certificate of appropriateness as to exterior architectural features has been approved.
Ordinary maintenance or repair of any exterior architectural feature that does not involve a change in design, material or outer appearance typically does not require a certificate of appropriateness. To learn more, please see Section 3.6.2 of the Land Use Management Ordinance.
Essentially, any project that will affect the exterior appearance of your property will require a COA.
Who approves the COA?
Depending on the scope of the project, the project may be approved by staff or by the Historic District Commission (HDC). The Design Guidelines designate approval authority to staff for certain projects, including:
• Walkways on private property when constructed of common red brick, or Chapel Hill gravel.
• Minor projects which do not require building permits because of cost or because they involve nonstructural changes.
• Signs which do not require a sign permit.
• Installing gutters painted to match the house or trim, as long as no significant architectural features are removed.
• Construction of wood deck on rear or side of house when less than 10% would be visible from a public right-of-way.
• Fieldstone walls not exceeding three feet in height.
• Bricked-in areas on side or rear of structure at ground level and not abutting right-of-way.
The above projects are not required to be heard by the Commission, but applicants must still submit a COA application and relevant fees before staff can approve the project.
All other projects must be approved by the Commission during their monthly meetings. Depending on the complexity of the project, the item may be eligible for inclusion on the Consent Agenda, which is typically reserved for small-scale projects where the exterior appearance is altered slightly or not at all (such as roof repairs, generator installations, door and window replacement). See below for more information on the Commission’s regulatory authority.
My house is in a historic district, but it is not historic. Do I still need a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) to make changes?
Yes, any project that will affect the exterior appearance of your property will require a COA. The Chapel Hill Land Use Management Ordinance Section 3.6.2 does not differentiate between historic and non-historic houses.
What are the fees for my project?
Applicants have the choice of applying for a combined Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) and Zoning Compliance Permit, which has a $570 fee. Alternatively, applicants may submit the COA application only, with a fee of $400, and then apply for a ZCP after receiving a COA. The ZCP has a $250 fee. In both cases, a public notification (a postcard) must to be sent out to all property owners within 100 feet of the project property. Applicants are charged $1.00 per postcard. The Town provides a tool that you can use to generate a list of property owners within 100 feet.
Commercial projects have a $400 COA fee, and a $1.00 per postcard notification fee. There is no combined COA and ZCP fee for commercial projects. After receiving a COA, applicants must submit an Administrative Zoning Compliance Permit application, which has a $480 fee.
These fees do not include building permits. For information about Building permit fees, please contact the Inspections Department at 919-968-2718 or email@example.com.
How long will my project take to get approved?
After submitting a complete application, staff will schedule the project on the agenda for the next available HDC meeting. Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month, and complete applications are due 30 calendar days prior to the meeting date.
Depending on the scale of the project and information provided by the applicant, the Commission may approve or deny the project at the meeting. In some cases, the Commission may ask for additional information and continue the public hearing to the following month.
The Commission is tasked with taking action on an application within 90 days of the first hearing, or up to 180 days with the written consent of the applicant.
Do I need to hire a professional?
Depending on the scope of your project - new houses, large additions, or other projects that will significantly alter the exterior appearance of your home - it may be beneficial to hire an architect, engineer, design professional, or attorney. If you are already hiring someone to design your project, it may be valuable for them to fill out the application and present your case to the HDC on your behalf. Many local architects and designers have experience with COAs.
What is the Town Staff’s role in this process?
Town staff are here to help guide applicants through the process of obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA). Staff typically meet with applicants prior to their submitting the application to talk through the process, answer questions about the application, and provide initial feedback on the project. After applicants submit their materials, staff will review the application for completeness and provide comments. Once all required materials and documents have been submitted, staff deems the application to be complete.
Staff then meets with the Commission chair to review applications and determine any Consent Agenda items. Staff then develops the agenda and staff reports for each project, which summarize the relevant Design Guidelines that are applicable to the project. The agenda is published 10 business days before the meeting.
At the meeting, staff helps to run the meeting, provides background information, answers questions about relevant ordinance provisions, and more.
Afterwards, staff puts together approval and denial letters, placards, and works with applicants if their item was continued to help them prepare for the next meeting.
Where can I find the COA Application?
What are the Design Guidelines for the Chapel Hill Historic Districts?
The Design Guidelines for the Chapel Hill Historic Districts were adopted by the Town Council in June 2002. The Guidelines set the standards for property owners and for the Historic District Commission on what is congruous with the character of the historic districts.
The Guidelines include a brief description and history of Chapel Hill, and a description of the Historic District Commission. Each topic covered includes points to consider prior to designing and has specific guidelines. For example, exterior lighting suggests the use of directional fixtures and down lighting to prevent excessive nighttime lighting.
How are the Design Guidelines used by the Historic District Commission?
The Design Guidelines provide standards that the Commission uses to determine whether or not a proposal is incongruous with the special character of the district. As an applicant, you should be familiar with the specific Design Guidelines that apply to your project. The Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) application requires you to provide justification and facts to demonstrate how your project meets those specific Guidelines; the Commission will then use this information to make a decision on your case.
Resources for Home Owners
Researching & Repairing a Historic Property
I have more questions! Who should I contact?
Anya Grahn firstname.lastname@example.org
Becky McDonnell email@example.com
Jake Lowman firstname.lastname@example.org