Historic districts rules up for review

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After 12 years since its last revision, the Raleigh Historic District Commission (RHDC) is reviewing and updating its guidelines that govern how home renovations, exterior changes and new commercial buildings are handled in the oldest parts of the city.

The commission’s guidelines govern how homeowners in historic districts can remodel houses and change landscaping. Residents in these districts have to get permission from the commission for everything from adding an addition to a house to planting new bushes.

Mark Senior, a resident of the Boylan Heights historic district, was one of about 10 people that attended a meeting held by the RHDC earlier this month to offer insight as to how the guidelines should be changed. Senior has only lived in his Kinsey Street home for four months, but has already went in front of the commission to have a number of changes approved, including the installation of a wooden fence, the planting of privacy shrubs along in the back of his property and the alteration and removal of more than 25 percent of the previous owner’s landscaping.


Mark Senior bought this 60-year-old home in the Boylan Historic District four months ago and has had to appear before the Raleigh Historic District Commission to have a number of his renovations approved.

“I also applied for staff review for a number of other less significant changes,” said Senior, who works for the City of Raleigh. “Some of these were approved, but a number of them were deemed inappropriate or required more information before they could be approved.”

Senior’s home was built in 1947 and considered a “non-contributing” home by the commission. A non-contributing home does not contribute to the character of the neighborhood, which is comprised of homes that are much older.

While Senior said he supports the idea of historic district guidelines, he added that he feels the guides are too strict. “Somewhere there needs to be a balance between preserving the historic appearance while giving the owners as much autonomy as possible,” he said noting that previously he only had to worry about Homeowner Association covenants and could make any changes he felt were needed. “No one likes to be told what they can and can’t do with their property.”

Anyone that wishes to change the exterior of a building in a historic district must fill out an application, which includes specific design details and requires extensive planning on the part of the applicant. Some changes are made by staff review, while other major changes require the approval from the RHDC. In some cases, historical evidence is necessary before making a change.

For example, Capitol Historic District resident Betsey Foard intends to go before the commission for approval to install a picket fence around the rear of her East Edenton Street property. A photo from the late 1800s shows the original fence that surrounds her home.

The Haywood House – as her home is called – has been in Foard’s family since Dr. Richard B. Haywood built it in 1854. General Blair once used the 156-year-old residence as a Confederate headquarters in 1865. It was put on the National Registry as a historic landmark 100 years later.

“My family does not chafe at the restrictions because we are glad that we have an antebellum home and we want to make sure it lasts for future generations,” said Foard who continues to live in the home with her mother.


The Haywood House, on East Edenton Street, was built in 1856 by Richard B. Haywood and remains in the Haywood family. It was put on the National Registry in 1964.

Foard said she understands how the guidelines can be considered too confining when the materials used to build, and then restore these homes, are often not as safe, sustainable or attractive as what is available today. “I think the guidelines, like zoning restrictions, are important enough that both sides should be willing to compromise when possible,” she said.

While Meg McLaurin does not live in a historic district, as an architect and designer who sometimes has clients in those areas, she has had to appear in front of the commission numerous times in order to have plans approved.

At the meeting, McLaurin expressed her concern with the common practice of having to differentiate new elements, such as windows or an addition, instead of creating a design that matches the existing structure.

“If you weren’t living in a historic district, you would want it to be seamless,” she told the members of her discussion group, which included Matt Brown who sits on the RHDC. “You want it to be different, but I don’t believe that’s good design.”

The RHDC will continue to take comments from the public through an online survey found on its website, rhdc.org, or via email at guidelines@rhdc.org. The overhaul is being funded by a grant from the Federal Historic Preservation Fund and the first draft will be ready for public review in February.

The RHDC is also looking for input on how to clarify and expand on the following areas:

  • Archaeological sites
  • Cemeteries
  • Post WWII and modern architecture
  • Infill downtown and urban commercial architecture
  • Individual historic landmarks
  • Sustainability
  • New alternative or substitute materials

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