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How Does Historic Landmark Designation Work?

February 23, 2021

Historic landmark designation plays a key role in ensuring the protection and preservation of historically significant buildings, landscapes and sites. It provides benefits to the community at large, recognizing the importance of the cultural heritage of a particular place. While you’ve probably heard of landmark designation, it’s important to understand that the process of receiving a designation is far from simple, and can happen at a number of different levels. Read on to learn about the key types of historic landmark designation, and the application processes and benefits for each.

Federal Designation

Federal historic landmark designation falls to one of two designation organizations: the National Register of Historic Places (also known as the NR or National Register), and the National Historic Landmarks Program (NHL Program). While the two are similar, and both are operated by the National Parks Service, they carry slightly different goals. The NHL program aims to preserve properties and landmarks that are of specific significance to American history and culture, while the National Register includes properties and places of historic, archaeological, and architectural importance. In other words, the NHL program is more appropriate for public places tied to historic figures, events or periods of time, while the National Register can be used for buildings of architectural, artistic, or archaeological significance.

Landmark designation on the National Register is a far more common process than NHL designation. The National Register sets the following criteria for landmark designation:

“The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:

  • that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  • that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  • that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  • that have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.”

National Register designation begins by applying at the state level for consideration. Once criteria are met, the State Historic Preservation Office then notifies any and all property owners impacted by the designation and opens the floor for public comment. Next, both the State and National boards will review the application in detail, a process that takes typically a minimum of 90 days. Finally, reviewed nominations are submitted by the state to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. for final review and listing by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service makes a listing decision within 45 days.

National Register designation doesn’t guarantee that the public will have access to a historic place. It’s also important to note that National Register designation doesn’t limit what an owner can do with a property or building—if it’s privately owned and hasn’t received any federal grants or tax breaks, a property may still be demolished or renovated as the owner sees fit unless it also has received specific designation and zoning at the local level.

State Designation

In addition to assisting with National Register designation, the state of Florida’s Division of Historical Resources has a number of preservation programs and the authority to designate landmarks at the state level.

The primary landmark designation offered by the state is inclusion in the Historical Markers program, which provides official signage to historic sites and lists them in Florida’s database of historic places. You’ve probably seen these signs around town—they’re metal plaques that offer a short explanation of a site’s historic significance. To receive this designation, a number of documents are required, including a written explanation of the historic significance of the site, a map of the proposed marker location, and photos of the property. This type of landmark designation is primarily for tourism purposes and doesn’t offer any type of incentive or protection to a property.

The Division of Historical Resources does, however, administer a number of incentives for historic preservation, including the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit and the Property Tax Exemption. While these exemptions are granted at the Federal level, the state is responsible for reviewing and approving applications. While national landmark designation isn’t explicitly required for these incentives, it certainly helps the application process go more smoothly.

Local Designation

The St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places is our city’s local designation program. Run by City staff, eligibility criteria very closely mirror the National Register’s criteria.  “Local landmark designation,” as it’s commonly known, is at the core of Preserve the ‘Burg’s mission.

The process for local designation begins with an application through The City of St. Pete. This application includes criteria for review, a survey of any modifications that have been made to the property over the years, and a rigorous approval process.

There is a wide range of benefits for receiving local landmark designation:

  • Property owners become eligible for the Rehabilitation Ad Valorem Tax Exemption program. This program currently exempts up to 12.1 mils of certain property taxes for a ten-year period following qualifying improvements.
  • Buildings in the St. Petersburg Register may be eligible for adaptive reuse for suitable land-use types that would otherwise be prohibited. Essentially, zoning requirements are very different for appropriately designated historic properties compared to new construction.
  • Certain Florida Building Code Exemptions are allowed for buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places or the St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places. Basically, renovations do not have to meet certain aspects of building code if they would negatively impact the building’s historic value.

Unlike listing in the National Register, local landmark designation provides protection from demolition and alterations that aren’t done in the interest of preserving historic value. Historic preservation staff conducts reviews of proposed changes to locally designated properties through the Certificates of Appropriateness process.

Third-Party Designation

We’ve previously spoken about third-party landmark designation and its importance to the community. This is a specific type of local designation that isn’t filed by the property owner, but by a third-party, such as a neighborhood association, a preservation organization like Preserve the ‘Burg, or even the city itself. This type of designation follows a similar application process to local designation but is typically placed under particular scrutiny because of the potential resistance from the property owner.

Unlike owner-initiated applications, third-party designation requires additional meetings between the applicant, property owner, and City Council member in the district where the property is located and added notice requirements. Once these criteria are met, third-party designations require a supermajority for City Council approval—meaning all efforts need to be taken to ensure there’s overwhelming support for designation.

Historic landmark designation offers benefits to property owners, historians and scholars, and the community as a whole. However, ensuring that buildings are preserved through landmark designation is just one way that we can help keep St. Pete special! Learn more about our mission and our ongoing projects.

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