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Frequently Asked Questions - Local Historic District

Why do we need a Historic District?
There's the potential for dramatic change on Humphrey Street that could affect the historic character of Swampscott, its structures and its neighborhoods. A Local Historic District (LHD) would protect the unique historic elements and character of the area by providing a regulatory review process for changes to the exterior of buildings and site features visible from a public way.

Isn't that what zoning does?
Zoning deals with the issues defined by the zoning by-law - more specifically how the land is used. This means zoning regulates building areas, dimensional limitations, and the type of land use allowed.  Local historic districts regulate issues related to preservation of historic resources and the appropriateness of the design character and appearance of proposed changes.

I thought we already had a historic district in Swampscott?
The Olmsted District is a National Historic District which means its only an honorary designation from the federal government. It's important for raising awareness about the area, and it often invokes a great sense of pride about the district among the residents. Unfortunately it does not give the Town the ability to prevent demolitions or new construction that would harm the character of the area. This can, however, be accomplished by a local historic district, which is why it is being studied here in Swampscott.

If my house is included in the local historic district, does that mean I have to make it look more historic?
No, you can maintain the current look of your house as long as you would like. A local historic district only reviews proposed changes and exterior architectural features. Routine maintenance of your house is exempt from review.

How is a local historic district created?
The first step is to find out what residents and property owners think. If there is interest in creating a local historic district, the Board of Selectmen appoint a study committee that will investigate local historic district designation further. The appointment of a study committee has already occurred in Swampscott. The study committee then holds public meetings, seeks public input, researches the history of the area and prepares a report on the findings. The final step is passage of a historic district bylaw by a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting.

How long will this historic district study take?
It's anticipated that the process will take about a year.

How many Local Historic Districts are there in Massachusetts? Is this a national program?
Over 100 communities in Massachusetts have local historic districts, and over 2,000 nationwide. Marblehead and Salem each have one or more LHDs. Walk through downtown Marblehead or the McIntyre District in Salem to see how well they work.

What kinds of things are reviewed by a historic district commission?
Exterior architectural features visible from a public way are reviewed. Interior changes, landscaping, maintenence and exterior features not visible from a public way are not reviewed. Further exemptions can also be written into the bylaw prior to the vote.

Who are members of the historic district commission?
The local bylaw would describe specifically how the Board of Selectmen will select appointees to the Historic District Commission. In other communities in Massachusetts, the historic district commission consists of members such as architects, realtors, residents and property owners of the district.

Does being in a historic district prevent me from painting my house any color I want?
While some local historic districts in Massachusetts do include paint color review, the majority of bylaws do not include such regulations.

If my building was located in a local historic district and I was constructing an addition, what would I have to do?
Before acquiring the building permit for your addition, you would fill out an application to the Historic District Commission. The Commission would hold a public hearing and review the proposed plans to make sure that they are appropriate changes to the historic district. If the addition is deemed appropriate, the Commission issues a certificate. You would then proceed as ususal to the Building Inspector with the Commission's certificate in hand to get your building permit. If the addition is deemed inappropriate, the Commission would proceed to explain to you how to improve the project.

What if a structure in the district is not considered historic?
Work done on any structure in the LHD is subject to review, whether it is considered historic or not.

Isn't this just another level of bureaucracy?
Yes, it is. While it's true that an additional step is needed for some projects, the benefits of protecting the rich historical heritage of Swampscott will have been deemed more important than some developments with the historic district having been approved in the first place. Without a local historic district, a great many inappropriate developments can take place without the public's opinion being heard.

What will happen to the value of my property if a local historic district is established?
No one can predict the future, but studies around the country suggest that property values stay the same or increase faster in local historic districts compared to similar, non-designated areas.

If I and my neighbors already maintain the historic character of our properties, why do we need an historic district?
By having a local historic district, you can be assured that a new property owner across the street from your house will also maintain the historic character of the district.


Town of Swampscott
22 Monument Avenue, Swampscott MA 01907
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