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Municipal Planning, Ordinances, and Zoning Overlays 


Municipalities have many options available to them for identifying, preserving, and enhancing historic places in their communities. These tools include integrating historic preservation programs and policies into comprehensive, economic development, and open space planning, reviewing alterations to historic buildings, and establishing zoning overlays that protect historic places. This page includes information about these tools and resources for municipalities considering how to use them in their communities.

Guidance for Historic Preservation Planning

The Municipalities Planning Code calls on counties and municipalities to include provisions for preserving historic places and archaeological sites in their comprehensive plans and zoning. To help local governments fulfill this responsibility, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has developed its Guidance for Historic Preservation Planning (currently under revision), recommending steps toward developing an effective comprehensive historic preservation plan.

The SHPO has likewise drafted language that may be incorporated into planning documents to help planners identify areas where there is a high probability of finding significant archaeological sites. Download the entire document Planning Guidance for Archaeological Sites (currently under revision).

Guidance for Ordinances and Overlays

If your community is considering enacting a historic preservation ordinance or amending the zoning code to protect historic properties, there are multiple ways you can achieve your goals. The right solution will depend upon the physical characteristics of the historic resources, the community s goals in creating a preservation program, and the administrative capacity of the municipal staff and volunteers. Below you'll find a broad overview of the two legal options available to municipalities. You will find more detailed discussion of these laws and related issues in PHMC's publication "Historic District Designation in Pennsylvania."

Because local preservation ordinances are land use laws, municipalities are advised to include local and county planners, planning commissions, and municipal solicitors in discussions about these options early in the process. Please contact your Community Preservation Coordinator if you have questions or need assistance in finding the right option for your municipality.

Guidance for Design Guidelines

Design guidelines are one of the tools that communities use to manage change to the built environment. In older and established communities, illustrated guidelines provide valuable guidance to property owners and decision-makers involved in the application of historic preservation ordinances, funding façade improvement programs, and providing advice on effective maintenance practices for older buildings.

The Principles and Standards for Design Guidelines in Pennsylvania Communities are intended to provide local governments, community organizations, and consultants with guidance on how to develop effective and useful design guidelines for older and historic communities in Pennsylvania.


The Historic District Act (Act 167 of 1961)

The Historic District Act is one of two pieces of state enabling legislation that allow municipalities to enact local historic preservation ordinances. The law authorizes cities, boroughs, and townships to designate areas within their communities as historic districts, require property owners to receive a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) before altering or demolishing a historic building, and appoint a Historic Architectural Review Board to review COA applications.

As the name implies, the Historic District Act is best utilized in communities where there is a concentration of buildings and historic places in close proximity to each other (i.e. residential neighborhoods or commercial districts). It has been used in rural communities as well, including the designation of the entire township of Oley in Berks County as a local historic district in 2005. The SHPO's Cultural Resources GIS allows you to search for information related to local historic districts established under the Historic District Act.

The state legislation requires that the Pennsylvania Historical amp; Museum Commission certify the boundaries of a historic district prior to a municipality enforcing the design review and COA requirements. The Certification Policy and Checklist (PDF) provides detailed information about the requirements and process for requesting certification. Please contact your Community Preservation Coordinator to discuss your community's plans prior to submitting certification requests.

Municipalities Planning Code

The Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) includes provisions that allow municipalities to enact zoning ordinances that protect and enhance historic properties. The language in the MPC is broader and less specific than the Historic District Act, and municipalities have used this authority to protect individual properties in rural or suburban settings, require special consideration of historic preservation when reviewing variance, subdivision, and special exception applications, and provide development incentives that protect important characteristics of historic properties that are undergoing changes or development.

Tools and Resources for HARBs and Historical Commissions

Passing an ordinance and appointing a review board or commission is only the beginning of developing an effective local historic preservation program. The links below provide municipalities with some helpful tips on administering a preservation ordinance.