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Local Historic Districts Provide Strongest Protections to Preserve Baltimore’s Heritage

June 20 2018

Over the past few weeks, residents of the Woodberry neighborhood have engaged with preservationists, developers, and fellow citizens to prevent the demolition of two 1840s stone houses along Clipper Mill Road. Through their efforts, it seems the developer will move forward with a new plan that incorporates the buildings with new construction.

Although the buildings in Woodberry are within the boundaries of a National Register historic district, there are no restrictions on demolition for privately held properties. Created in 1966 through the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register of Historic Places helps protect historic structures from actions from the federal government (and in Maryland from state action). Baltimore’s first National Register historic district was Fell’s Point; its designation in 1969 helped prevent the waterfront neighborhood from being razed to accommodate a federal highway slicing through Fell’s Point and Federal Hill.

Fell's Point is one of the nation's oldest designated Naitonal Register historic districts. Listed in the National Register in 1969, its desgnation protected the historic maritime community from demolition to make way for a proposed federal highway. (Photo by George Sass)

So how can Baltimore better protect historic properties? The most effective tool is designation as a local historic district. With this designation alterations, new development, and other changes must conform to the guidance of the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

Along with 1,200 other communities in the United States, Baltimore works to protect and preserve its historic structures through a local preservation ordinance. Baltimore’s preservation ordinance was implemented in 1964, making it one of the earliest in the nation.

Local historic district designation helps neighborhoods preserve their unique character. Rather than a “top down” approach, designation is typically driven by a neighborhood-based initiative. The community works with CHAP to determine borders and other considerations. Designation is formalized by an act of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. 

The local designation provides strong levels of protection. Exterior changes are reviewed to ensure changes do not alter the character of the neighborhood; new development and demolition is also carefully reviewed. Designation does not limit property use or restrictions of sales, nor does it lead to any automatic increase in property taxes. (Property tax increases are based on property values and are determined independently.)

To encourage the preservation of historic structures, various financial incentives are available for properties contributing to a historic district, including local and state tax credit programs for both income-producing properties and residential-use properties.

We’re happy to know that the 1840s stone houses will continue to stand, reflecting the charm noted in the original documentation of the historic district: “Woodberry retains a pastoral, village-like atmosphere characterized by narrow streets and footpaths, front and back yards, and open space.” We hope that the residents of Woodberry, and the many other historic neighborhoods of Baltimore, will look to local historic designation to help preserve what makes their special spaces unique.

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