The New Historic District

As the Town Council’s liaison to the Historic District Commission since the 2015 election, I’ve had a front-row seat to many redevelopment proposals by people who have no clue what value historic neighborhoods add to our community. The presentations follow a form so uniform that it appears to be an Internet download.

The presentations apparently never vary from city to city. In this week’s New Yorker, Jeremiah Budin spoofs those presentations in a piece that would be so much funnier if it weren’t so true.

Budin clearly has sat through numerous applications to demolish history and replace it with something shiny and new. He knows all the lingo, from the “mixed-use” towers to the offer of maybe planting a tree, unless it gets in the way, to the claim of historic patina because the brand-new complex is near something old.

At last Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, a couple dozen historic district homeowners petitioned us to impose a moratorium on allowing rooming houses in an R-3 zoning area. A swath in one of our historic districts is zoned R-3, and developers have been going door-to-door, offering above-market-value for houses in hopes of amassing a block of properties that they can combine, tear down the historic homes and build to a higher density.

We accepted the petition, though one person on the dais brushed aside the urgency, saying staff will study the issue, along with what to do about short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, an issue so complex that the historic homes in the R-3 section will be razed by the time we it sort out.

The homeowners’ anxiety stems from their understanding that once a historic property and century-plus old trees come down, the tie that connects us to a community across generations is irreparably severed. State law does not allow the Historic District Commission to prevent a historic structure from demolition. Although the HDC ostensibly has the authority to approve what is built on the cleared site, the right lawyer can appeal to the Board of Adjustment, which routinely reverses the decisions of other boards.

What we lose with every demolition is a page of our history. We are left with a type of dementia that erases our long-term memory and consigns us to live only in the present.

Enjoy the spoof, but take its message to heart. The destruction of historic properties is no joke.

— Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri

     /  May 13, 2019

    When PreservationNC sells a house, they put a restrictive easement on it. Can the town create it’s on historic easement? It works for conservation easements:

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  May 13, 2019

    Timely question. An issue before the Historic District Commission recently involved two properties that had a conservation easement across them, put on by CH Preservation Society. A buyer of one property wanted the easement removed before he’d buy, so the real estate broker arranged a quit-claim to remove it, and the property sold, sans easement. Was that legal? Complicated by broker’s leadership position in Preservation Chapel Hill. May take a lawsuit to sort out.

  3. Terri

     /  May 13, 2019

    PreservationCH (volunteer org) is not the same as Preservation NC (managed by a lawyer).

  4. David

     /  May 15, 2019

    According to a person knowledgable about historic preservation matters, one possible outcome of the current lawsuit arising from the case Nancy describes above is that Preservation Chapel Hill may be shut down and the local historic properties it owns would be transferred to Preservation NC. Although I’m generally a fan of local control, this might be a change for the better.

  5. Julie McClintock

     /  May 17, 2019


    The whole story needs to be told. I was present for this council discussion and am fully supportive of the neighbors ‘s petition to prevent rooming houses. This all came about because the Council signed on to an Economic Opportunity Zone, a federal tax credit program covering a very large area of town. Otherwise it’s unlikely we would have out of town investors trying to buy up houses in our historic district. The Council needs to take ownership for letting this happen. Now we apparently can’t get out of it so the council must deal with the consequences. The Zone was apparently created to give tax credits for the NCNB redevelopment – probably a good thing – but we are discovering the downsides.

  6. Nancy Oates

     /  May 17, 2019

    Just to clarify: The Opportunity Zone was presented to us at an Economic Sustainability meeting as a done deal. It had been applied for and approved by the Feds before council knew anything about it. At the Friday morning meeting, I voiced strong objection to this being used in Chapel Hill because it put at risk not only the Historic District but the largest swath of middle-class housing in town. Not to mention that the town took advantage of a program that was meant to revitalize poor areas, like the South Bronx, where I worked as a probation and parole officer.

  7. David

     /  May 17, 2019


    It’s a bit concerning that staff can apply for a federal program that potentially will adversely affect the town without needing Council authorization. Clearly staff didn’t carefully consider all the implications. So what can Council do now to minimize the harm?

  8. Plurimus

     /  May 18, 2019

    More than a bit concerning. Why was this not presented to the TC? What was the process used and who were the decision makers?

  9. Nancy Oates

     /  May 18, 2019

    Before Parks & Rec applied for a grant that would give the town $500K toward the purchase or development of the American Legion property for a public park, parks director Jim Orr presented the opportunity to council, which turned it down, claiming we didn’t want to be locked into preserving any portion of the land as a park. (I voted against turning it down. Who leaves $500K of free money on the table?!) So it is curious why council didn’t get the chance to weigh in on applying for the Opportunity Zone designation. Here’s the town’s press release:

  10. Terri

     /  May 20, 2019

    I thought the issue was using historic homes for Airbnb but on second read I caught the sentence “developers have been going door-to-door, offering above-market-value for houses in hopes of amassing a block of properties that they can combine, tear down the historic homes and build to a higher density.” According to the dictionary, a rooming house is a room within a private home, nothing to do with higher density. If the neighbors want a moratorium on rooming houses, but the developers want to tear down for higher density, aren’t those two separate problems?

  11. Nancy Oates

     /  May 20, 2019

    A rooming house is a way to get around Chapel Hill’s “no more than 4” ordinance. R-3 zoning allows duplexes and rooming houses, so the single-family historic homes could be torn down and replaced with accommodations for many more people than a single-family house or duplex would allow. In that neighborhood close to Franklin Street and campus, the target market is students, which tips the balance from a family neighborhood to one of student rentals.

  12. Terri

     /  May 20, 2019

    Sounds like one of the problems is the town’s definition of rooming house (a single room within an existing home per the dictionary). I took a class at UNC last semester on historic preservation and learned that the issue with the tear down in Chapel Hill is a result of the town’s weak ordinance (including no prohibition on demolition by neglect) and the failure of PreservationCH to put easements on the houses it manages. I’m sure there are other issues as well, but those are the specific problems we discussed in class.

    Myth #1:“If a property gets designated as a historic landmark, it’s protected forever and can never be demolished.”

    Fact: Landmark designation ensures a more thorough review of demolition proposals, but it does not prohibit demolition outright. In the City of Los Angeles, designation as a City historic landmark (Historic-Cultural Monument) allows the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission to object to the issuance of a demolition permit, but only for 180 days. The City Council may then extend the objection to demolition for an additional 180 days.

    Many East Coast cities, including New York, do actually prohibit demolition of their landmarks, but these cities also leave an exception for cases of demonstrated economic hardship. Even listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which sounds more elevated than“mere”local listing, does not provide for more iron-clad protection.

    Although demolition of a designated landmark in California additionally requires preparation of an Environmental Impact Report to assess the feasibility of alternatives to demolition, a truly determined property owner may be able to obtain approval to destroy even our most cherished landmarks.”

  13. Nancy Oates

     /  May 20, 2019

    North Carolina is a Dillon Rule state, so no municipality can make an ordinance stricter than the state’s, and the state does not allow a Historic District Commission to prevent a demolition, only delay it by a year.

  14. Terri

     /  May 22, 2019

    Nancy, Raleigh, Charlotte and Salisbury all have stronger ordinances than Chapel Hill. I posted links to those ordinances twice but they never got published.

  15. Nancy Oates

     /  May 22, 2019

    Thanks for letting me know, Terri. Any post with more than one live link in it needs the site administrator’s approval. Because your post had only links, and more than one link, it went straight to spam. It should show up now.

  16. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  May 23, 2019

    Building for greater population drives up municipal service demands, and therefore, real estate taxes.

    It’s nice that Dwight Bassett applied for this program in February 2018 that subsidizes tear-downs in the historic district, and that the Town Council didn’t know about it for more than a year. The taxpayers of Chapel Hill paid him for that.