Historic Overlay Zoning
Historic Overlay Zoning in Connecticut.
What is a Historic Overlay Zone? First, an overlay zone is an additional layer of regulations for a specific area that is laid over the underlying zoning regulations. The base zoning regulations continue to be administered, but the overlay adds another level of regulations to be considered. Historic Overlay Zoning is when historic district design review is established through a zoning ordinance rather than an independent process such as establishing a Local Historic District (LHD). This Historic Overlay tier is applied to an area considered worthy of preservation because of its architectural, cultural or historic significance.
Historic Overlay Zoning is another avenue a Connecticut municipality can use to protect historic areas and structures rather than establishing a Local Historic District. In 1977 Connecticut General Statute 8-2 was amended to allow zoning commissions to consider historic factors when rendering a zoning decision.
In certain instances it may be more beneficial for a municipality to use zoning regulations for historic preservation than establishing a local historic district/property. A zoning change (overlay) does not require the two-thirds approval of property owners in order to establish it or approval of an ordinance by the municipal legislative body. To amend a local zoning ordinance and add a historic overlay it is not necessary to have a community election.
Another benefit for a zoning board review is that they can regulate the use of a building, whereas a Local Historic District Commission cannot. Although it may appear a LHD Commission may have more authority over a "district" because a zoning commission decision may be overturned or undercut by a zoning board of appeals, the zoning commission does have the power to prohibit ZBA from granting use variances in certain instances. A zoning commission can implement a similar control over individual projects through a special permit that a LHD Commission can exercise through a "Certificate of Appropriateness". Using a historic overlay zone may be a good alternative to establishing a local historic district when certain required criteria cannot be met, such as obtaining the required two-thirds property owner vote.
However, when establishing a historic overlay zone it is important to coordinate preservation regulations and zoning rules. Problems can arise when there are incompatible use regulations. This frequently happens when the areas historic uses do not match the current zoning designation. For example, when a neighborhood of historic residential buildings is zoned commercial there is the possibility of inappropriate alterations to convert the residential buildings to accommodate commercial uses. Other issues to take into account are density, lot sizes and off street parking.
A number of Connecticut towns have created historic overlay zones. In Greenwich the historic overlay or HO designation is "a tool used by the Planning and Zoning to encourage retention of notable structures by providing economic incentive through the easing of zoning restrictions in return for permanent deed restrictions including mandatory review of any changes to historic assets." These individual properties are located outside the town's two Local Historic Districts and can be designated as either a Historic Residential/Office Zone (HRO) or Historic Overlay Zone (HO). Greenwich currently has 6 HRO properties and 16 HO structures. The overlay zone encourages the adaptive re-use of buildings and allows input from the Historic District Commission on appropriate changes. The greatest benefit is that upon completion of the work an easement is granted to the municipality and enforceable by the Historic District Commission.
Bridgeport's zoning regulations states that "the Historic Overlay Zone (HOZ) is intended to recognize the establishment of the City's Local Historic Districts and to promote the public interest in having the full and informed participation of the City's Historic District Commission in the hearing of zoning applications potentially affecting the City's historic resources." The Historic Overlay Zone may include properties that are proximate to, but not within, a Local Historic District. Procedures for the HOZ ensure that Bridgeport's Historic District Commissions are notified of all applications before Planning and Zoning and ZBA regarding properties within or adjacent to the Local Historic District and allows the LHD Commission to comment and make suggestions regarding the proposed work. This opinion is taken under consideration by the Zoning Board or ZBA but is not a binding resolution.
Westport zoning regulations have a "Historic Overlay District" the purpose of which is "to encourage the preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation of buildings of historical, architectural or cultural value and to preserve and prevent the loss of significant historic elements, buildings and sites, located within non-residential districts." Changes made to buildings within the HOD would require a special permit by the P & Z Commission with a recommendation by the Historic District Commission. The special permit will be issued on the condition that a preservation easement is granted by the owner.
Terry J. Tondro in "Connecticut Land Use Regulation" states that creating a historic overlay zone "can be a relatively adequate alternative forum for regulating the design and maintaining the character of older buildings and neighborhoods" when a Local Historic District can not be created. However he goes on to say that establishing a Local Historic District is the preferred mechanism in protecting Connecticut's historic buildings. His concerns are two fold: 1- A Zoning Commission has many other factors to consider when making decisions and building preservation may get lost or ignored in the process; 2- A Zoning Commission has no authority to prevent the demolition of a building, whereas a Historic District Commission can exercise some control over the destruction of building.
In essence the Village Districts Act is a form of Historic Overlay Zoning. The Village District Act is also a zoning tool which can protect a community's character and historic development patterns. Connecticut PA 98-116 allows municipal zoning commissions to create village districts to preserve historic and scenic resources and VD regulations are a part of the town's zoning regulations. The scope of the Village District is a little broader than a Local Historic District and can review landscaping, road design, maintenance of public views and all new construction and major reconstruction. Like Historic Overlay Zoning, creating a Village District does not require approval of property owners, municipal government or review by the State Historic Preservation Office but is established by a local zoning ordinance. The creation of a Village District is also a positive alternative to establishing a Local Historic District, if that is not a feasible option. For more on Village Districts please see Protecting Historic Resources under Preservation Help.
In closing, it appears that different Connecticut municipalities use Historic District Overlay Zoning for a variety of purposes. Some use it as a tool to protect and regulate areas surrounding a Local Historic District and others use it as a regulatory process in place of a Local Historic District/Property review. As more towns and cities enact Historic Overlay Zoning, the Connecticut Trust will continue to monitor and report on its effectiveness to protect and preserve our state's historic and architectural significant resources.