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Historic Preservation

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.


Historic preservation not only maintains, restores, and rehabilitates historic and cultural resources for future generations, but also identifies what’s unique about a community and creates a sense of place. Preserving sites and structures with historical significance can also revitalize traditional downtowns, spurring tourism and creating a vibrant local economy.

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 15 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 the inclusion of a historic preservation or cultural resources element in comprehensive plans, cities and counties planning under the GMA must consider and incorporate the historic preservation goal, and many jurisdictions prepare historic preservation elements.

Historic preservation plans typically include inventories of existing historic sites and properties that have the potential to qualify as historic, as well as assessments of how local regulations are aligned with preservation goals.

National and State Historic Landmark Designations

There are a variety of landmark designations at the national, state, and local levels. The National and State designations are honorary and enable property owners to access preservation funding sources, but do not place restrictions on the alteration of the property.

National Designations

There are two federal programs that designate historic landmarks: The National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program. Both 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 1,600 in Washington State.
  • National Historic Landmarks Program – Includes properties with national historical significance, not just local or regional importance. There are currently over 2,600 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 DAHP.

State and Federal Laws, Standards, and Guidelines

Local Historic Preservation

Local historic designations and districts offer the most robust protections. They can effectively limit alterations or demolition of properties and add additional review to permitting to ensure historic character is preserved.

Many Washington jurisdictions have code provisions establishing local historic designations and register programs. These provisions create a process for nominating landmarks and criteria for evaluating 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 those for local landmarks but often result in new zoning designations 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. This often-appointed group is comprised 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.

Avenida Apartments in Spokane

Image credit: Spokane Register of Historic Places, the Avenida Apartments built in 1909

Preservation Tools and Incentives

This section includes several examples of grants and funding local governments can use to identify, protect, and rehabilitate local historic sites and buildings. More information is available through DAHP. Main Street America includes additional funding opportunities.

Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP)
  • Easements – Property owner grants a portion of the property to a historic preservation organization.
  • Federal Historic Tax Credit – Investments in rehabilitating historic properties listed on the National Register may be eligible for federal income tax credits.
  • Grants and Funding – Includes over 25 grant opportunities from public agencies, private foundations, and companies from throughout the state and elsewhere.
  • Main Street Tax Credit Program – Provides a business and occupation or public utility tax credit for private contributions to eligible downtown organizations (Washington Main Street Communities).
  • 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. See RCW 84.26 for more information.

Examples of Local Historic Preservation Programs

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

Historic Preservation Codes

  • Clark County Code Sec. 40.250.030 – Applies to property listed on the Clark County Cultural Resources Inventory, National Register of Historic Places, Washington State Heritage Register (or nominated), and Clark County Heritage Register (or nominated)
  • Cowlitz County Code Ch. 18.80 – Provides for the identification, evaluation, designation, and protection of designated historic and prehistoric resources, as well as the preservation and rehabilitation of eligible historic properties through special valuation
  • LaConner Municipal Code Ch. 15.50 – Applies to the designation, preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, reconstruction, relocation, remodel, demolition, or material change to the exterior appearance of historic landmarks, structures, and new development in the Historic Preservation District.
  • Port Townsend Municipal Code Ch. 17.30 – Covers design review, historic place designation, demolition standards, and maintenance (demolition by neglect).
  • Ritzville
  • Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 17D.100 – Keeps qualifying historic buildings in use through their listing on the Spokane Register of Historic Places, incentivizes rehabilitation, reviews changes to historic properties, and promotes preservation in all neighborhoods
  • Vancouver Municipal Code Ch. 17.39 – Includes regulations related to the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission, heritage services, National Register of Historic Places, Clark County Heritage Register, relationship to zoning, and more

Historic Preservation Plans and Comprehensive Plan Elements

Historic Districts

Historic Preservation Commissions

Other Documents

For examples of other documents related to historic preservation, such as RFPs or job descriptions, see MRSC’s Sample Document Library.

Court Decisions

University of Washington v. City of Seattle (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 historically significant. 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 regents, that law was amended by adding the 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; the Growth Management Hearings Boards should address that issue). 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 (2009), review denied (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 and a regulatory taking, depriving 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 (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 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 (1999) – The court upheld the town’s denial of permits to demolish a structure located within La Conner’s Historic Preservation District and replace it with a 25,300-square foot 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 (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 (1996) – The 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 (1996) – The 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 (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 ordinance burdens 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 (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 (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 that 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.

Recommended Resources

Below are a number of publications and organizations that support local historic preservation programs through technical assistance and other resources.

Last Modified: February 23, 2024