This page provides a basic overview of historic preservation for local governments in Washington State, including state and national designations, examples of local historic preservation programs and ordinances, relevant court decisions, and related resources.
Preserving historic resources not only protects beautiful old buildings, but also acknowledges important local histories and cultures. Strategic investment in historic preservation can help revitalize older commercial districts, spurring tourism and economic development.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (Public Law 89-665, 16 U.S.C. sec. 470 et seq.) is the key statute that defines present federal and state historic preservation programs. It established the National Register of Historic Places and authorized National Historic Landmark listings. Following its adoption, local city and county heritage programs also emerged.
The Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) provides expertise, services, and training for the protection and preservation of Washington State’s historic places, including the efforts of local governments. DAHP also processes nominations to the National Register and administers the Certified Local Government (CLG) program, which recognizes and supports local historic preservation programs that meet federal and state standards.
Among its 13 goals, Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA) includes a goal to "Identify and encourage the preservation of lands, sites, and structures that have historical, cultural, and archaeological significance" (RCW 36.70A.020(13)). Although the GMA does not require a historic preservation or cultural resources element in a comprehensive plan, cities and counties planning under the GMA must consider and incorporate the historic preservation goal, and many jurisdictions have prepared a historic preservation element.
Historic preservation plans typically include inventories of existing historic sites and properties that have the potential to qualify as historic, as well as an assessment of how local regulations are aligned with preservation goals.
There are a variety of landmark designation at the national, state, and local levels. The National and State designations are honorary and enable the property owner to access preservation funding sources, but do not place restrictions on the alteration of the property.
There are two federal programs that designate historic landmarks: The National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program. Both programs are managed by the National Park Service.
- National Register of Historic Places – Lists properties deemed worthy of preservation because of local, regional, or national historic significance. There are currently over 90,000 properties on the national register, including over 1,500 in Washington State.
- National Historic Landmarks Program – For properties with a high level of national historical significance, not just local or regional significance. There are currently about 2,500 properties designated as national historic landmarks, with 24 in Washington State. All National Historic Landmarks are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Washington State Designations
Washington State historic designations are managed by the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP).
- Washington Heritage Register – Honorary designation that recognizes places of historic significance in Washington.
- Heritage Barn Register – Historic listing to commemorate historically significant barns
Statutes and Administrative Regulations
- WA Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation: Preservation Laws – Includes state and federal laws on historic preservation and archaeology
- National Park Service: Federal Historic Preservation Laws, Regulations, and Orders
Local historic designations and districts offer the most robust protections. They can effectively limit alterations or demolition of the property and add additional review to permitting to ensure that historic character is preserved.
Many Washington jurisdictions have code provisions establishing local historic designations and register programs. These provision create a process for nominating landmarks and criteria for how to evaluate historic significance. Ordinances may also place limits on alteration and demolition of historic landmarks or make permits subject to approval by the preservation board or commission.
In addition to designating an individual historic building, local governments often establish historic districts to preserve the unique character of an entire area. Designation of historic districts may have nomination processes similar to that for local landmarks but often result in a new zoning designation or overlay district that implements stricter permitting and review processes to protect historic elements.
Local historic preservation efforts are typically spearheaded by a historic preservation commission or board, either with or without staff assistance. The commission and its responsibilities are established by local ordinance, and it is often appointed and made up of architects, historians, real estate professionals, and residents with an interest in historic preservation. The commission is typically responsible for reviewing applications for historic landmark status and permits for the alteration of historic properties.
Image credit: Spokane Register of Historic Places, the Avenida Apartments built in 1909
This section includes several examples of tools and incentives used to facilitate the preservation of historic properties. More information about each of these tools can be found on the Washington DAHP webpage.
- Federal Historic Tax Credit – Investments in the rehabilitation of historic properties listed on the National Register may be eligible for federal income tax credits.
- Washington Special Tax Valuation – A property owner who incurs substantial rehabilitation costs (at least 25% of the building's assessed value) may subtract qualifying costs from the new assessed value for 10 years. To take advantage of this program, the local government must first adopt an ordinance enabling the use of special tax valuation.
- Easements – Property owner grants a portion of the property to a historic preservation organization
- Other Funding Sources – DAHP maintains a list of grants and loan programs for historic preservation
The following are selected ordinances from Washington jurisdictions that address landmark preservation, establish preservation commissions, or include zoning regulations for historic areas.
Model Ordinances, Bylaws, and Templates
- Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Places: CLG Document Templates – Includes model ordinance for historic preservation, template for historic preservation commission bylaws, and sample conservation district provisions
Historic Preservation Codes
- Clark County Code Sec. 40.250.030 – Historic Preservation
- Cowlitz County Code Ch. 18.80 – Historic Preservation
- LaConner Municipal Code Ch. 15.50 – Historic Preservation District
- Port Townsend Municipal Code Ch. 17.30 – Historic Preservation Code
- Ritzville Municipal Code Ch. 1.46 (historic preservation) and Ch. 11.70 (historic preservation overlay zone)
- Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 25.12 – Landmarks Preservation
- Snohomish Municipal Code Ch. 14.225 – Design Standards in Historic District
- Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 17D.100 – Historic Preservation; provisions provide financial incentives to renovate historic structures instead of demolishing them and allow property owners to apply for designation of a historic district subject to stricter development review
- Vancouver Municipal Code Ch. 17.39 – Historic Preservation
Historic Preservation Plans and Plan Elements
- Everett Downtown Historic Preservation Plan (2011) – Strategic plan that identifies downtown historic properties and sites and proposes action items to help preserve, enhance, and market historic properties
- Hoquiam Downtown Hoquiam Historic Preservation Plan (2010)
- Pasco Historic Preservation Plan 2013
- Puyallup Historic Preservation Plan (2016)
- Tacoma Historic Preservation Plan (2011) – Element of comprehensive plan
- Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation: Preservation Planning – Includes current and past State Historic Preservation Plans, guidelines, and related documents
Historic Preservation Commissions
- Bainbridge Island Historic Preservation Commission
- Municipal Code Ch. 18.24.020 – Historic Preservation Commission
- Seattle Landmarks Program
- Snohomish County Code Ch. 2.96 – Historic Preservation Commission
- Spokane Register of Historic Places
Other Sample Documents
- For examples of other sample documents related to historic preservation, such as RFPs or job descriptions, see MRSC’s Sample Document Library.
Below are a number of publications and organizations that support historic preservation and provide detailed information on local historic preservation plans, programs, and procedures.
- WA Department of Commerce: Historic Preservation: A Tool for Managing Growth (2005) – Helpful guide from Commerce (formerly Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development) to preparing the historic preservation element of a comprehensive plan
- U.S. Secretary of the Interior: Illustrated Guidelines for Preserving Historic Buildings – Standards for the preservation of historic properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, used by federal agencies and many local governments. Codified in 36 CFR 67 for use in the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program
- National Trust for Historic Preservation: Citizen's Guide to Protecting Historic Places: Local Preservation Ordinances (2002) – Smart Growth Tools for Main Street; useful general guide to developing local preservation ordinances
- WA Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation: The Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation in Washington State: Summary Report (2006) – Documents the economic benefits of several types of historic preservation activities in Washington State and focuses on three key aspects of economic impacts: rehabilitation of historic buildings, heritage tourism, and the effects of historic designation on residential property values
- National Institute of Building Science, Whole Building Design Guide: Historic Preservation – Discusses different approaches to historic preservation and emerging issues
- National Trust for Historic Preservation – National private nonprofit organization dedicated to historic preservation
- Main Street America – Nonprofit committed to advancing the preservation-based revitalization of commercial districts throughout the country
- Research & Policy Lab (formerly Preservation Green Lab) – Provides research that explores the value of older buildings and offers policy solutions that make it easier to reuse and green older and historic buildings; based in Seattle
- Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) – Oversees and certifies local preservation programs in Washington
- Washington Trust for Historic Preservation – Statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving historic places through advocacy, education, collaboration, and stewardship. Administers several programs for DAHP
- 4Culture Preservation Program – Offers grants and technical assistance for historic preservation projects located within King County
- University of Washington v. City of Seattle, 188 Wn.2d 823 (2017)
The University of Washington planned to demolish a building that formerly housed a nuclear reactor. However, that building had been nominated for protection under Seattle’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance (LPO). The LPO restricts changes to buildings that have been designated as being historical. Although the University had previously followed the LPO (but without conceding that its projects were covered by the ordinance), it argued that the ordinance did not apply to the University, thus the old reactor building was not protected. The trial court held in the University’s favor, finding that the University was not a “person” for purposes of the LPO. The City appealed and the supreme court reversed. Although a statute previously placed full control of University property in the hands of the University regents, that law was amended by adding language "except as otherwise provided by law." The Growth Management Act (GMA) can be such an exception and it provides authority for local governments to adopt development regulations. The LPO is such a regulation that applies to the University. (The court did not address whether the LPO was a development regulation; that issue should be addressed by the Growth Management Hearings Boards.) The court rejected the University’s argument that it was not a state agency; it is a state agency and must adhere to local development regulations. The court also determined that the University is a property owner for purposes of the LPO.
- Conner v. City of Seattle, 153 Wn. App. 673 (2009), review denied, 168 Wn.2d 1040 (2010)
Conner sought to develop property that had previously been designated as a landmark. Conner argued that the landmark designation applied only to a house on the property and not to the surrounding grounds. The court disagreed; the designation included both the house and the grounds. Conner further contended that the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was unconstitutionally vague as applied and that the landmark restrictions on the property constituted an unlawful tax, a regulatory taking, and deprived him of due process. The court concluded that the ordinance was not vague as each property was reviewed individually. There was no unlawful tax or a takings (the city need not prove a compelling interest).
- City of Tacoma v. Zimmerman, 119 Wn. App. 738 (2004)
The court upheld the validity of a Tacoma ordinance authorizing city acquisition of an historic structure through eminent domain. The owner was allowing the historic structure to deteriorate. Tacoma had a strong code provision in effect and had vigorously attempted to get the owners to maintain the structure, but without success. The court found that the city council did not abuse its discretion when it decided to exercise its eminent domain power under the Derelict Building Procedure of the Tacoma Municipal Code and preserve the Old Elks Temple, a pivotal structure in the Old City Hall Historic District of Tacoma.
- Swoboda v. Town of La Conner, 97 Wn. App. 613 (1999).
Court upheld town’s denial of permits to demolish a structure located within La Conner’s Historic Preservation District and replace it with a 25,300 sf commercial structure. The developer challenged La Conner’s historic preservation ordinance as being unconstitutionally vague as applied. The court disagreed and held that the code contained ascertainable standards with which to implement the code. The developer also argued that the ordinance only applied to designated historic landmarks. The court concluded that the ordinance applied to all buildings within the Historic Preservation District, not just designated landmarks.
- Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Island County, 87 Wn. App. 552, 942 P.2d 1034 (1997)
Counties are obligated under the Shoreline Management Act to establish procedures protecting buildings, sites, and areas having historic, cultural, educational, or scientific value. Island County violated the statute and its own Shoreline Management Master Plan by issuing sewer repair permits without adopting any procedures protecting known Indian archaeological sites in the area. Implementing protective procedures is especially critical where, in an effort to keep the sites from being looted, only the County knows where the sites are located.
- First United Methodist Church of Seattle v. Hearing Examiner for the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, 129 Wn.2d 238, 916 P.2d 374 (1996)
Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which prohibits United Methodist from making any alterations or significant changes to the church without City approval, burdens free exercise of religion because it forbids United Methodist to sell its property and use the proceeds to advance its religious mission. The ordinance is invalid as applied because the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution prevents government from engaging in landmark preservation when preservation has a coercive effect on religious practice.
- Munns v. Martin, 131 Wn.2d 192, 930 P.2d 318 (1996)
Demolition permit ordinance, which provides for a waiting period preceding issuance of a permit to demolish any structure over 50 years old or a "place of historic value," is an unconstitutional violation of the Catholic Bishop's right to demolish a school building that was once part of his religious ministry. Delaying demolition and development for long periods of time and compelling the Bishop to seek approval of his "religious mission" from secular authorities burdens the free exercise of religion.
- First Covenant Church of Seattle v. City of Seattle, 120 Wn.2d 203, 840 P.2d 174 (1992)
Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which requires First Covenant to get a certificate of approval before it makes certain alterations to the church's exterior, violates the church's right to free exercise of religion under the state and federal constitutions. The church building itself is an expression of religious belief and message. Therefore, the ordinances burden the church's free exercise administratively (by requiring the church to seek approval from secular authorities before altering the exterior of the building) and financially (by cutting in half the value of the church's property). The City's interest in preserving historic structures is not compelling enough to justify infringement on free exercise.
- Buttnick v. City of Seattle, 105 Wn.2d 857, 719 P.2d 93 (1986)
In commanding building owner to remove and replace a parapet/pediment, the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation Board did not work an unconstitutional taking of property. Local governments may enact land use restrictions or controls to enhance quality of life by preserving the character and desirable aesthetic features of a city. Furthermore, the estimated cost of replacing the parapet does not impose an unnecessary or undue hardship on the property owner, considering the building's high market value and income-producing potential.
- Penn Cent. Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission denied property owner’s plans for construction of 50-story office building over Grand Central Terminal, which had been designated a landmark. The owner appealed, arguing that application of landmarks preservation law constituted a taking of the property without just compensation and arbitrarily deprived owners of their property without due process. The Supreme Court held that: (1) owners could not establish a taking merely by showing that they had been denied the right to utilize the airspace above the building; (2) landmark laws which embody a comprehensive plan to preserve structures of historic or aesthetic interest are not discriminatory; (3) that the law affected some owners more than others did not itself result in a taking, and (4) the law did not interfere with owners' present use or prevent it from realizing a reasonable rate of return on its investment, especially since preexisting air rights were transferable to other nearby parcels.