Federal laws/regulations; Connecticut laws/regulations;

OLR Research Report

The Connecticut General Assembly


January 28, 1997 97-R-0076


FROM: Susan Goranson, Principal Analyst

RE: Historic Districts

You asked for a brief explanation of local, state, and national historic districts.


Towns may create historic districts and historic district commissions to administer them. A district is created by a vote of the town's legislative body once a study committee has examined the need for a district and the affected property owners have agreed. Once a district is formed the local historic district commission is authorized to regulate changes to the exterior structure of buildings in the district. Before a building can be altered, erected, or demolished a certificate of appropriateness must be obtained from the commission. The commission's regulations and orders are enforceable by orders of the Superior Court.

The Connecticut Historical Commission (CHC) is the state agency responsible for historic preservation. It has many responsibilities including advising the local commissions, maintaining a registry of historic places, providing information and technical assistance about historic preservation, acquiring historic structures, and evaluating proposed projects for their effect on state owned historic buildings. It has been designated under federal law as the state agency to administer all activities under the National Historic Preservation Program.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 established a program to maintain a National Register of Historic Places composed of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. Properties of national historic significance are eligible for inclusion on the register. The CHC recommends properties in Connecticut for inclusion on the national register. Inclusion on the list may make a private property owner eligible for preservation grants or tax credits.


Under state law towns may establish and fund historic districts to promote the educational, cultural, economic, and general public welfare through the preservation and protection of the distinctive characteristics of buildings and places associated with the history of or indicative of a period or style of architecture of the town, state, or nation. The district must be established by a vote of the town's legislative body and it must conform to the Connecticut Historical Commission's standards and criteria (CGS 7-147).

Establishing a District

A town must take number of steps before establishing a district. The town's legislative body must either appoint a historic district study committee or authorize the chief elected official to appoint one. If a town wants to establish more that one district it may appoint more than one study committee as long as the proposed districts are not contiguous to each other or an existing district. The committee must have five regular and three alternative members who are electors of the town.

The committee must report to the CHC and the town's planning and zoning commission. The report must include: (1) an analysis of the historic significance and architectural merit of the buildings or places to be included in the proposed district and the significance of the district as a whole; (2) a general description of the area to be included in the district, including the number of buildings and their known or estimated age; (3) a map showing the exact boundaries of the proposed district; (4) a proposed ordinance to create and operate the district; and (5) any other relevant matters.

The CHC and the town's planning and zoning commissions must make their comments and recommendations on the report within 65 days of receiving it. Failure to respond implies approval of the report. If the town does not have a planning and zoning commission the report goes to its chief elected official. The CHC may also recommend approval, disapproval, modification, alteration, or rejection of the ordinance and the district boundaries.

The committee must hold a public hearing on the report after it receives the commissions' comments and recommendations. The public hearing must be held not less than 65 nor more than 100 days after the committee's initial submission of the report to the commissions. The committee must publish notice of the hearing in a town newspaper and also mail a notice, along with a copy of the report, to the property owners in the proposed district. The committee must submit its report, along with any changes, within 65 days of the hearing to the town's legislative body and clerk.

The clerk must mail ballots to each property owner in the proposed district on the question of creation of an district within 65 days of receiving the report. The ballot must be modeled after a ballot prepared by the CHC. Two thirds of the property owners casting votes must agree for a district to be formed. After receiving the votes, the town's legislative body may by majority vote accept the report and enact an ordinance to form a district, reject it, or return it to the committee with proposed revisions. The ordinance must be recorded on the land records.

Historic District Commission

Once an historic district is established the study committee ceases to exist and from then on an historic district commission administers the district. The commission is made up of five regular and three alternate members who are electors of the town. At least one member must live in the district. The commission may accept grants and gifts, employ clerical and technical assistance and consultants, and incur other necessary expenses.

The commission may (1) report to the town's legislative body, (2) give information to property owners and others about preserving the district, (3) suggest pertinent legislation, (4) initiate planning and zoning proposals, (5) cooperate with other agencies and groups interested in historic preservation, (6) comment on all zoning variance applications and special exceptions that affect historic districts, (7) give advice on sidewalk construction and repair, tree planting, street improvements, and the erection or alteration of public buildings not otherwise under their control that affect the district, (8) give information and assistance regarding capital improvement programs involving historic districts, and (9) consult with experts.

Certificate of Appropriateness

A certificate of appropriateness as to exterior architectural features is required from the historic district commission before anyone can alter or erect a building or structure within a district. A certificate is also required before a building is demolished. A town cannot issue a building permit for these activities until the commission issues a certificate. The commission may request information necessary to enable it to make a decision on the application. The style, material, size, and location of outdoor advertising signs and bill posters is under the commission's control, but the color of paint used on the outside of a building is not. The commission also cannot consider the interior use or arrangement of a building.

In deciding whether an exterior architectural feature is appropriate the commission must consider: (1) the type and style of exterior windows, doors, light fixtures, signs, above-ground utility structures, mechanical appurtenances, and building materials and (2) the historical and architectural value and significance, architectural style, scale, general design, arrangement, texture and material of the architectural features involved, and the relationship to the style and features of other buildings and structures in the immediate neighborhood.

The commissioner must approve an application for a certificate for a feature, such as a solar energy system, designed to use renewable resources unless it finds that it cannot be installed without substantially impairing the historic character and appearance of the district.

A certificate is also required from the commission in order to create, enlarge, or alter any industrial, commercial, business, home industry, or occupational parking area. The commission must consider the size of the parking area, the visibility of cars parked in it, the closeness of the area to other buildings, and similar factors in deciding whether to issue a parking certificate.

The commission must hold a public hearing before making a decision on the certificate. The commission has 65 days from the date the application is filed to act on the certificate. If it does not act the application is considered approved. If the commission denies the certificate it must state the reason for its denial. Any decision of the commission may be appealed to Superior Court.

The commission can grant a variance to an applicant for a certificate if the strict application of the law would cause undue hardship or exceptional practical difficulty upon the owner.


The regulations and orders of the commission can be enforced by the town's zoning enforcement official, building inspector, or anyone designated by ordinance. The commission can institute an action in Superior Court against those who violate the commission's regulations or orders The court can act to restrain the violation and can issue orders directing that the violation be corrected or removed. It can also set a fine of between $10 and $100 a day for each day the violation continues. If the violation is willful the fine can be between $100 and $200 per day. The fines must be used by the commission to restore the affected buildings. Any money left over goes to the town.


The Connecticut Historical Commission is established by state statute. It has 12 members appointed by the governor and is in the Department of Education for administrative purposes only. The commission is responsible for a wide spectrum of activities related to its mission of protecting and preserving Connecticut's heritage. These activities include identifying and evaluating the state's historic resources, creating a State Register of Historic Places, working with the federal government to designate places as national historic sites, reviewing proposed projects for their effect on state owned historic buildings, and advising towns on the creating and operating historic districts (CGS 10-321).

The commission is authorized by statute to:

1. study and investigate historic structures and landmarks in Connecticut and encourage and recommend the development, preservation and marking of those found to have educational, recreational, and historical significance;

2. prepare, adopt, and maintain standards for a State Register of Historic Places;

3. maintain the State Historic Preservation Plan;

4. administer the National Register of Historic Places Program;

5. help owners of historic places obtain federal or other aid for historic preservation;

6. cooperate with the Department of Economic and Community Development by furnishing data, historical facts, and finding to enable the department to promote and publicize the existence of historic structures and landmarks in Connecticut;

7. recommend to the general assembly the placing of suitable markers to designate historic places;

8. recommend to the general assembly the development and preservation of historic places owned by the state;

9. maintain a program of historical, architectural, and archaeological research, development, and publication;

10. cooperate with other groups, historical organizations, and state, local, and federal governments in promoting and publicizing the historical heritage of Connecticut;

11. develop standards and criteria for guiding towns in establishing local historic districts;

12. advise on the relationship of the state building code to historic structures;

13. review planned state and federal actions to determine their impact on historic structures;

14. operate Henry Whitfield House in Guilford as a museum;

15. provide technical and financial assistance;

16. adopt regulations to preserve sacred and archaeological sites; and

17. inventory state lands to identify sacred and archaeological sites.

The commission may acquire historic structures and landmarks of state or national importance and operate the properties for public visitation. It is conducting an ongoing survey of Connecticut's historic, architectural, and archaeological properties. Over 70,000 sites have been recorded as part of the Statewide Historic Resource Inventory and over 25,000 have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The commission also administers all activities required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 including, the National Register of Historic Places, a matching grant-in-aid program, the environmental review of federally and state-funded projects, the review of certified rehabilitation for federal tax credits, and the certification of local governments as preservation partners. The commission's director has been designated has the State Historic Preservation Officer to implement the federal program in Connecticut


Congress created the national historic preservation program in 1966. The law authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to expand and maintain a National Register of Historic Places. Properties are added to the National Register through:

1. an act of congress or an executive order which creates historic areas of the National Park System (NPS),

2. the declaration of the Secretary of the Interior that the property is of national significance,

3. nominations received from an approved State Historic Preservation Program and submitted by the State Historic Preservation Officer and approved by the NPS,

4. nominations approved by the NPS from any person or local government from a state without an approved program, and

5. nominations of federal properties received from federal agencies.

Listing of private property on the National Register does not prohibit any actions the property owner may take under federal law or regulation. It may make property owners eligible for grants-in-aid for historic preservation and tax credits. The register is designed to be used by federal, state, and local governments and private groups to identify the nation's cultural resources and to indicate what properties should be considered for protection from destruction or impairment. The register is designed to be used as a planning tool. If a federal agency has a project that may have an effect on a listed or eligible property, it must give the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation an opportunity to commit on the project.

In Connecticut the director of the CHC is responsible for identifying and nominating properties to the National Register. He is the designated State Historic Preservation Officer. The officer must set statewide priorities for preparing and submitting nominations. He must consult with local authorities during the nomination process, notify private property owners, and solicit written comments on the proposed listing. Federal regulations outline an elaborate notification and public hearing process the state must follow in nominating a property (36 CFR 60).

The State Historic Preservation Officer has a number of statutory responsibilities under federal law including:

1. cooperating with state, federal and local governments and private groups in conducting and maintaining a statewide survey of historic properties;

2. identifying and nominating eligible properties to the National Register;

3. preparing and implementing a statewide historic preservation plan;

4. administering the state program of federal assistance for historic preservation;

5. advising and assisting state, federal, and local governments in carrying out their historic preservation responsibilities;

6. cooperating with federal, state, and local governments and private groups to ensure that historic properties are considered at all levels of planning and development;

7. providing public information, education, and training, and technical assistance relating to the program;

8. cooperating with local governments in developing local programs and certifying local governments to carry out portions of the federal program;

9. consulting with federal agencies on undertakings that may affect historic properties and plans to manage these properties; and

10. advising and assisting in evaluating proposals for rehabilitation projects that may qualify for federal assistance (16 U.S.C.A. 470a).