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Historic Preservation Ordinances

Many Kentucky communities have decided they want to keep the look and feel of the place they call “home” by adopting a local preservation ordinance and creating a local preservation commission to administer it. A preservation ordinance can protect historic properties by officially recognizing historic areas as local historic districts. An overlay zone adds a second layer of design element regulation to the underlying use regulation of properties in those districts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a historic district?

It is a geographically defined area with a concentration of older buildings, structures, sites, spaces and/or objects unified by past events, physical development, or design.

We are in a National Register District. Aren’t we already protected? 

No. The National Register listing is primarily honorary. While buildings in a National Register district may be eligible for tax incentives and grants, the National Register only gives you some protection from federally funded projects or federally licensed activities. Additionally, National Register district boundaries often meander across the street into the middle of blocks, or go down the center of a block or down the middle of a street, giving no continuity to neighborhood.

How is a local historic district created?

A local historic district is a zoning overlay that is created by an amendment to the official zoning map. Provisions for protecting the historic character of an area are generally found in Kentucky Revised Statutes, Chapter 100, and specifically KRS 100.201 (2) and KRS 100.203 (1) (e) and (g). Local governments can protect the visual and historic character through the establishment of an overlay district. This enables local governments not only to regulate land use within specific districts, but also to impose restrictions on aesthetic elements within the districts. An overlay district represents a second level of oversight imposed on property before development or alteration within that district may begin. Overlay ordinances must not conflict with the underlying zoning regulation or prohibit uses permitted by underlying zoning regulations.

Do we have any historic buildings?

Most jurisdictions identify historic properties and potential historic properties through a survey process. The best place to start is to look at the National Register survey in Kentucky. Many county seats in Kentucky have been surveyed, although some of the surveys are dated. Communities then use the survey or update the survey to arrive at a list of designated historic structures within that district (sometimes referred to as a designation report). The designation report identifies structures as either contributing or noncontributing to the historic integrity of the district. This label will in turn dictate the level of review that the local preservation commission will apply. Contributing properties may enjoy full protection, while noncontributing properties may have less stringent protection, depending largely on whether the requested changes to properties are “compatible with the character” of the district.

The designation report listed my building as a “non-contributing” structure, so why does the historic preservation commission still need to review my property?

There are two reasons. First, the commission recognizes that your property is non-contributing and subject to less stringent requirements, but they still want to ensure that any changes are compatible with the district and do not detract from its historic integrity. Second, as difficult as it may seem at the present, your property may achieve historic significance in the future.  

Why do we need a local historic district if my neighbors and I already maintain the historic character of our properties?

In this era of growth and increased mobility, new owners may move into an area and not respect the character and buildings of the historic district. Petitions and public outcry may stop some inappropriate development, but the case-by-case fights are costly, in terms of time and money, for developers and the community. The overlay zone sets up a predictable framework in which decisions about community appearance and historic properties can be made.

If my building is included in the local historic district, do I have to make my building look more historic?

In a local historic district only proposed changes to exterior architectural features are reviewed. Preservation ordinances ask that any new work fit in with the existing historic buildings and not destroy more of the historic materials and features. There is no requirement for owners to remove later additions or put back missing features. 

If my building is included in the local historic district, will I have to fix up my building?

Preservation ordinances usually contain no requirement for owners to repair their building; however, be mindful that there are city housing and building codes used to ensure that structures are safe and livable. Generally, preservation ordinances allow for ordinary maintenance and repairs without getting approval from the local historic preservation commission. Some communities have adopted a demolition by neglect provision that allows the local government to step in and prevent deterioration if an owner is deliberately letting a building deteriorate so that they can tear it down. However, many communities choose simply to meet with the landowner to suggest improvements and request that the building inspector mothball the structure until changes are made.

If my building is included in the local historic district, will I be prevented from making changes to my building?

Historic preservation ordinances do not prevent change. However, changes must meet design criteria and guidelines for the local historic district.  The goal is to make changes that are appropriate and fit in with the district. 

What are design criteria or design guidelines?

The local districts must adopt standards, guidelines or criteria to be followed that can be set out in the ordinance or included by reference in order that property owners are fully apprised as to what changes are appropriate for local historic districts. Usually communities as a base standard adopt the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.

Communities then enlist the services of an expert (either voluntary or paid) and tailor the standards to their own community. Through text and illustrations, the guidelines show acceptable alterations, additions, and new construction. The guidelines, like the designation and the ordinance, are only enacted after public hearings and appropriate local legislative approval. How restrictive the guidelines will be depends on the desires of the community. 

If I want to renovate a structure that is located in a local historic district, what must I do?

Find out the design review standards for your district. Draw up your plans. If you are required to file a building permit, the building inspector generally refers you to the local historic preservation commission to complete an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness or forwards the application to the commission for you. If you are not required to file a building permit, you must still complete an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness and submit it to the local preservation commission. 

Can a new building or addition be constructed in a local historic district?

Yes, as long as the plans are consistent with design guidelines for new construction. New construction should be compatible with the existing district, but should also be distinct and not an imitation of historic structures.

Can buildings be demolished in a local historic district?

A building may be torn down if it poses a threat to the health and safety of residents as determined by a code enforcement official. For buildings that are in sound condition, preservation ordinances may have restrictions ranging from demolition delays to elaborate multipart tests. In general, if the structure is not contributing to the local historic district then demolition will probably be allowed. If the property is contributing and residential, the issue may then be whether the property can be put to a reasonable beneficial use without the approval of the demolition. If no, then the demolition will probably be allowed. If yes, then the next issue is whether the applicant will suffer economic hardship by denying the demolition. If the property is contributing and is income producing, the issue may be whether the owner can obtain a reasonable return from the building. Reasonable return may not be the highest and best use of the property. If no, then the demolition will be allowed. If yes, then the test is whether the applicant will suffer economic hardship by denying the demolition.

Must I get permission to paint my house? 

Some historic districts in Kentucky require a paint color review, but most do not. Each community must decide whether or not they will review paint color.

Will the ordinance require that I open my house for tours?

Absolutely not.

Will the ordinance require approval for interior changes to my house?

No. Preservation ordinances do not require review of interior changes to historic structures or new buildings. Please note that interior changes may still be subject to local code enforcement review.

Will a local historic district change how I use my property?

Local historic district overlays do not change the underlying zoning. For example if you were previously restricted to residential use, the historic district overlay won’t change that restriction. The design review process only guides exterior appearance of the use. 

Will a local historic district restrict the sale of my property, and will it affect the value of my property?

A local historic district presents no restrictions to the conveyance of your property. As to the value of your property, no one can predict the future, but studies from around the country suggest that local designations have increased property values or at least stabilized them. Studies regarding economic values of preservation can be obtained from the SHPO.

Legal Obligations

  • An ordinance must promote a valid public purpose.
  • An ordinance cannot deprive a property owner of all reasonable economic use.
  • An ordinance must honor a citizen’s constitutional right to a fair hearing, due notice, and a rational procedure.
  • An ordinance must comply with all relevant state laws.

Owners of properties in locally designated areas get approval from a locally appointed commission for exterior changes, additions, new construction, and relocation or demolition, so that changes complement the historic appearance of the building and the area. This approval process is called design review. The presence of a preservation ordinance does not prevent change; rather it encourages appropriate alterations and new construction that fits in with the existing buildings. Not only does the ordinance protect the historic properties, but studies have also shown that owners in protected districts have seen the value of their investments increase. 

Kentucky statutes provide several sources of authorization for historic districting, but the statutes do not set forth a detailed framework for an ordinance. Preservation ordinances vary from community to community as ordinances are generally tailored to meet the individual needs of the community and the resources being protected. The scope of regulatory authority also varies depending on such factors as community support and the relationship between the preservation commission and other government agencies.

State Law 

Kentucky state law allows communities to pass ordinances to protect historic resources:

  • When all the elements of a comprehensive plan have been adopted, then local legislative bodies in Kentucky may institute permanent land use regulations, including zoning and growth management regulations “to facilitate orderly and harmonious development and the visual and historic character” of their jurisdictions (KRS 100.201(2)).
  • Kentucky state law allows communities to pass zoning ordinances to protect and regulate districts of special interest to the proper development of a community such as historic and architecturally valuable districts and neighborhoods (KRS 100.203(1)(e)), as well as places having “unique interest or value” or  “special character or use affecting or affected by their surroundings” (KRS 100.203(1)(g)).

A note of caution, Kentucky state law requires “owner consent” before a county may pass an ordinance to protect a historic resource.

  • In Kentucky counties, fiscal courts are vested with the power to enact ordinances concerning planning, zoning, and subdivision control, as well as preservation of historic structures (KRS 67.083(3)(k) and 67.083(3)(y)).
  • Unlike cities in Kentucky, a county must obtain the voluntary written consent of the owner prior to exercising any controls concerning preservation of the historic structure. In addition, the county must advise the owner of the historic resources about advantages and disadvantages of the county’s action to preserve the historic structure (KRS 67.083(9)).

Key Components

Preservation ordinances generally consist of at least five key components:

  • Establishment of and powers given to a historic preservation commission or other administrative board.
  • Criteria and procedures for designation of historic districts and/or landmarks (landmarks normally involve only a single site or structure as opposed to a designated area).
  • Criteria and procedures for reviewing requests to alter, move, or demolish properties.
  • Standards and procedures for consideration of hardships and other issues of special concern.
  • A process for appeal and enforcement of its terms.

The SHPO maintains sample preservation ordinances from other communities, and offers training for members of preservation commissions. CLGs may apply for grants to create or update design guidelines, or provide training. 


  • Provides a municipal policy for the protection of historic properties.
  • Establishes an objective and democratic process for designating historic properties.
  • Protects the investments of owners and residents of historic properties by stabilizing declining neighborhoods and enhancing property values.
  • Encourages better quality design.
  • Helps the environment by encouraging conservation of valuable resources through adaptive reuse of historic structures and discourages decentralization of a city’s infrastructure.
  • Promotes education and community pride.
  • Promotes tourism.
  • Enhances business recruitment potential.
  • Benefits the social and psychological well-being of the citizens.
  • Allows citizens to take part in deciding the future of their community.

Public Education

Public education is perhaps the single most important component to developing and maintaining a local government preservation program. The goals for public participation should include:

  • Provide the public with information so they can understand the process, the issues, and the values, and can participate effectively.
  • Provide full opportunities for the public to share their views and to influence the outcome of the planning process.
  • Build consensus and public support for the vision and goals of the plan and of the entity charged with developing and implementing the plan.
  • Ensure that the planning effort addresses issues of importance to those affected by the plan.
  • Raise awareness of historic sites in the community and instruct owners as to proper maintenance techniques for historic sites using standards established by the Secretary of the Interior.
  • Promote the benefits, especially economic, of historic preservation.