Historic listing can pay

Tax credits: The long, expensive process of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places is often used to honor a community, but it also has substantial tax benefits.

November 25, 2001|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Stone Hill, a Baltimore neighborhood of small stone houses built in 1845 for textile-mill workers, is getting some attention these days.

"It's a kind of an honor for a community," said Norma Theo Pinette, a resident of Stone Hill, a section of Hampden. "We share a look and a love of our history so that's why we did it."

By year's end, Stone Hill will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a kind of honorary society run by the National Park Service for properties that are historically and culturally significant.

Those that make the register can be individual buildings, neighborhoods or structures such as bridges and lighthouses. Maryland has 1,178 listings, 136 of them neighborhoods.

By the end of the year, 13 Maryland neighborhoods are expected to be added to the register, including Stone Hill and two other city neighborhoods, Homeland and Lauraville, according to the Maryland Historical Trust, the preservation agency that administers the National Register program in the state.

Properties must be nominated to the register and go through a multi-step review. But there's no sense in proceeding with the nomination unless the neighborhood or structure is actually historic, so the first step is a preliminary determination whether it meets the criteria for listing.

Peter Kurtze, who runs the National Register for the Maryland Historic Trust, is the one who will visit the neighborhood. "I'll make an assessment to determine whether the neighborhood has enough historic integrity to proceed with the nomination," Kurtze said.

All properties must meet at least one of four of the Register's criteria for qualification.

Stone Hill, for instance, qualified because of its history as a mid-19th-century neighborhood in the Jones Falls Valley. It also qualifies because its architecture typifies a textile-mill village with housing built for workers.

Lauraville, a community in the northeast section of the city, is an excellent example of a 20th-century streetcar suburb in Baltimore.

After the neighborhood is deemed worthy of nomination, the next step is to educate homeowners on what it means to be listed, and to get a majority of the residents to support the process.

Many neighborhoods issue a petition to gauge the response to the listing. Some people balk at a Register listing because they think the federal government will interfere with their property rights.

"This is the biggest misconception," Kurtze said. "It doesn't affect property-owner rights in any way and doesn't impose any additional responsibilities on homeowners."

The Maryland Historic Trust notes that a National Register listing doesn't mean that the government can place restrictions on the use of a property, or tell owners what materials or colors to use, or prevent a house from being sold or even demolished.

"There're no Draconian rules that come with a National Register listing," said Jeff Sattler, a resident of Lauraville who coordinated its nomination.

It's also important to know that a neighborhood in a National Register district is different from a Baltimore City Historic District, which does have the legal right to review exterior alterations of homes, including paint colors.

A National Register listing for a neighborhood or an individual structure doesn't obligate the owner to preserve the property unless they apply for tax benefits and certain types of financing.

With a neighborhood in agreement, the next step is to prepare the nomination form to explain why the neighborhood qualifies for listing.

Although the National Park Service says anyone can prepare the form, this isn't quite accurate. The form and the research required is complex, and many neighborhoods have found that it's more expedient for a professional to do it.

"The precision that's required makes it difficult for an amateur to do," said Betty Bird, a consultant who has done many National Register nominations, including Stone Hill, Lauraville and individual buildings such as the Charles Theatre.

"When you see what's required, you'll see that it takes a fair deal of professional judgment," she said. When completed, the nomination goes before the Governor's Consulting Committee for review where it undergoes intense, often harsh, scrutiny amateurs will find difficult to respond to.

Bird will research a neighborhood's history, establish its historic boundaries and do an inventory of all buildings that contributed to its history. For some projects, such as Lauraville, she used some research the community had already done.

"The biggest help is when the neighborhood hands you a file folder of information," said Bird, who is an architectural historian by training. Along with the nomination form, a site plan and photos of the neighborhood are required.

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