Historic Preservation Elements

Historic Preservation Elements: Having a Seat at the Table


In the United States historic preservation began as a patriotic response to honor and recognize the political leaders and wealthy individuals who helped establish the new nation. Early efforts usually focused on individual buildings, rather than districts or neighborhoods, and they were often used as house museums and showcases for tourism.1  Then, following World War II the federal government undertook the development of an interstate highway system and an urban renewal program. The result of both initiatives was the massive destruction of many historic neighborhoods in the name of progress. People saw the impacts to their communities and a concern for both quality of life and community identity developed.2 The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 came out of this reaction to the federal programs. A basic tenet of the modern historic preservation movement is that historic preservation is part of land use planning decision and policy making.

Examples of Historic Preservation Elements or Historic Preservation in Related Elements

           County General Plans                                      City General Plans

General Plan Basics

In California the basic land use document each local government is required to adopt is the General Plan, a document that addresses “the physical development of the county or city, and any land outside its boundaries which bears relations to its planning” (California Government Code §65300). The California Supreme Court has characterized the General Plan as the “constitution for future development.” As its names implies, this document provides both general direction and limits; all subsequent planning, including ordinances, zoning, specific plans, subdivision regulations, redevelopment and building codes, must be consistent with the General Plan. 

California requires seven elements that must be included in the General Plan: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open-space, noise and safety. State law offers local governments the flexibility to prepare additional elements that address topics of concern to them; historic preservation is identified as one of these optional elements. Historical resources, unlike most other resources, can never be recovered once altered or demolished. Therefore, in order for historic preservation to be recognized as a legitimate land use concern, it is essential to include historic preservation in the community’s General Plan. 

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research provides guidelines for the preparation of the General Plan.  All elements of the General Plan have equal legal status, so the historic preservation element is as important as each of the other elements. Also, all elements of the General Plan must be consistent with one another.  For example, if the historic preservation element calls for the preservation of a certain area, it would be inappropriate for the circulation element to call for an expressway through the area.

Historic Preservation Element Content

Most historic preservation elements begin by summarizing the community’s program.  The City of San Diego outlines the legal basis for historic preservation, including federal and state laws and local codes; the certified local government program and city’s Register of Historical Resources; and San Diego history. The City of Orange includes a historic and architectural background; historic survey methodology and results; and issues and concerns. South Pasadena states the purpose of its historic preservation element and its relationship to other elements in the General Plan, followed by existing conditions and issues present in the community. These topics are fairly typical approaches to establishing the framework of the historic preservation element.

There is great flexibility in content and organization, but the meat of the document is the statement of goals, policies, and actions. Here is an excerpt from Elk Grove’s Historical Resources Element:

Guiding Goal 4-1.  Preservation and enhancement of Elk Grove’s historic structures and districts.
  • Historic Resource Policy 1. Encourage the preservation and enhancement of existing historical and archaeological resources in the City.
    • Historic Resource Action 1. Develop and update a comprehensive Historic Resource inventory using the National Register, the California Register, California Historical Landmarks, California Points of Historic Interest, and any other structures or properties the City Council determines to have historic value.

The City of Sacramento has expanded its element to include both historic and cultural resources, “which create a distinct sense of place for residents and visitors, as well as tell the story that uniquely differentiates Sacramento from all other cities.” To that end, Sacramento has included the following goal and policy:

Sacramento’s Historic and Cultural Resources Goal 3.1. Public Awareness and Appreciation. Foster public awareness and appreciation of Sacramento’s historic and cultural resources.
  • HCR Policy 3.1.1. Heritage Tourism; The City shall work with agencies, organizations, property owners, and business interests to develop and promote Heritage Tourism opportunities, in part as a economic development tool.

Davis has included a chapter on historic and archeological resources as part of its Community Resources Conservation element. The City has identified the maintenance of historic properties as an important issue in land use planning and has provided the following framework:

Goal HIS 1. Designate, preserve and protect the archaeological and historic resources within the Davis community.
  • Policy HIS 1.3. Assist and encourage property owners and tenants to maintain the integrity and character of historic resources, and to restore and reuse historic resources in a manner compatible with their historic character.
    • Action c. Prepare a “how to” guide for restoring historic and architecturally significant structures and make it available to the public.

Does the adoption of a historic preservation element guarantee a successful historic preservation program? That question was examined in 2002, when Petree A. Knighton prepared a professional report for the Office of Historic Preservation as part of her requirements for a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. The title was A Path to Parity: Adopting a Historic Preservation Element to the General Plan. Ms. Knighton concluded:Having a separate element helps bring historic preservation into parity with other land use concerns in the debate.  And while not all resources will be preserved, at least through a dedicated process and armed with emphasis by the community, preservation will have a seat at the table of discussion insuring that all avenues have been exhausted before the community loses a piece of their past.

1. Charles E. Fisher, “Promoting the Preservation of Historic Buildings:  Historic Preservation Policy in the United States.”  APT Bulletin 20, no. ¾ (1998), 8.
 2. Thomas F. King, Cultural Resource Law and Practice. 2nd. ed. (New York, Altamira Press, 2004), 19.