So You Want to Make Some Changes to Your House? Start Here…

GM learned the other day that the DC Council is taking up consideration of the Historic District Property Notification Act of 2011. What this law would do is to ensure that a notice is sent to every homeowner of a house in DC’s historic districts, including Georgetown, reminding them of what additional approval requirements apply to such homes.

This is long overdue and hopefully will make a difference towards reducing unauthorized construction in historic districts. But why wait for the legislation? GM will fill you in right now on what you need to know.

What Changes Need Approval?

The simple answer is basically all changes. Here are some ostensibly small changes that need approval:

  • New Windows
  • Adding HVAC to roof
  • New porch railing

And of course more dramatic changes obviously also require approval. Basically, there’s a fairly good chance that just about any physical change to the exterior of your house that you can imagine requires at least some minimal approval.

There is once exception to that rule (and an exception to the exception): paint. If you simply want to paint your house a new color, it does not need design review. However, if you have one of those plaques on the front of your house, like this:

Photo by Rich Renomeron.

Then that means a non-profit organization like the L’Enfant Trust holds a conservation easement over the facade of your home. And that means you need their permission to make any change on the front of your house, including paint color. (And that is, of course, on top of the normal governmental design approvals you need to obtain).

Who Reviews and Approves the Design?

Who actually reviews and approves your proposed changes depends on where the changes would be. If the proposed change is visible from any public way, then the proposal must be approved by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The Old Georgetown Board is a sub-committee of the CFA and it is the panel that actually handles all of the Georgetown projects.

What counts as a public way is more than just the road or the sidewalk. Most of the alleyways count too, so if someone can stand in the alley and see the changes you propose, then it must be approved by the Old Georgetown Board.

If the change you propose cannot be seen from any public way at all, then it still must be approved by DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

What Do I Do First?

The first thing you should do before making any change is to simply pick up the phone and call the DCRA at 202-442-4400. Regardless of whether the proposal needs OGB or HPRB approval, you still submit the application first to DCRA. The staff of the OGB will determine whether they need to approve it or not; you don’t need to make that determination.

If the proposed change is very small, you may have to do as little as obtain a post card permit. Just call DCRA and explain what changes you want to make, and they’ll walk you through it.

If You Want to Know More

The Citizens Association of Georgetown has produced a fantastic guide to historic preservation rules for homeowners. Check it out here.

Finally, if you see work being done on a house or a commercial building, and you suspect it was not permitted, contact your ANC rep immediately (or GM) and let them know. They should either already know about the project or be able to quickly find out about it. Unpermitted work happens all the time in Georgetown, particularly with the commercial buildings. The city simply doesn’t have enough inspectors to keep an eye on every property in the historic districts, so it’s up to residents to stop unauthorized projects before they damage the historic fabric of the neighborhood.



Filed under Preservation

2 responses to “So You Want to Make Some Changes to Your House? Start Here…

  1. Pingback: Morning Links: Step Aside - Housing Complex

  2. RNM

    Also keep in mind, even when you are filling for approvals and permits to replace such things as non original windows with like kind (wood for wood in the same dimensions etc…and even removing unsightly and non original triple track storm windows) that you will often still get turned down with the suggestion that you repair rotting windows where ice forms on the inside during the winter. Of course, if during the course of said “repair work” those poor windows were broken beyond ability to salvage (removing windows is delicate work), then you can go ahead and make the change though maybe the permit people would prefer 3/4 CDX plywood covering the window holes…guess that would be their choice too. As with the rest of life, it is often easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission…especially from a group prone to turn everything down. Respect the architecture, but we don’t live in a museum. This is also why I would never turn in my neighbors short of a massive violation…and find it funny that this post basically asks for the neighbors to turn stool pigeons on each other.

    Still, nice to see the often forgotten “I can paint my house any damn way I like” loophole in the code. It is amusing that a modern day HOA has more oversight than Georgetown…and another reason I don’t live in the suburbs with an HOA…give me the wilds of the city. 😉

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