The Risk of Building a New Home in a Historic Neighborhood

Clean exterior home during late spring season

When it comes to building a new home, most people know that the project will almost certainly involve some type of process in which their future home is properly documented. However, when it comes to construction in historic neighborhoods, these proceedings can be even more stringent as committees try to preserve the feel and integrity of their area.

Take Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example: while most of the area only requires builders to inspect the structure’s electrical system and septic tank, Chattanooga’s St. Elmo neighborhood has turned building and renovating homes into an extensive process. The Community Association of Historic St. Elmo committee can regulate everything from the types of windows and doors a house can have, the type of fencing that can be installed, the proper type of gutters, and more. And if a structure does not meet their requirements, the committee can force builders to halt work and tear down the offending feature. For this reason, many construction companies and homeowners in the Chattanooga area have recommended that anyone considering building or buying a home in a location that has been labeled “historic” first research any guidelines on remodeling or building that may apply to the neighborhood.

Originally a separate town, St. Elmo was annexed by Chattanooga in the early 20th century. But despite bright beginnings, it fell into disrepair and disrepute by the 1970s. Now in the midst of a successful revival, the building guidelines and historic committee exist to protect the restored integrity and value of their neighborhood. However, this hasn’t stopped some residents from reporting that committee members have chased workers away from projects or abruptly interrupted work with stop orders to prevent disagreeable changes.

St. Elmo is not alone in establishing these regulations: each of the four established historic districts in Chattanooga has a separate set of design guidelines tailored specifically for each area. In fact, most urban areas have zoning requirements that prevent companies from building fast food restaurants or warehouses in residential areas. What sets historic areas apart is that they can actually legislate the style of home and design choices of a new home, although any interior renovations are typically left to the discretion of the owner.

“One the many advantages to building your own custom historic home is that you can achieve all the charm, detail and character of a 100 year old home without the 100 years worth of problems that need fixing and updating, and by doing so you can avoid all the red tape that some historic districts require when renovating existing historic homes,” says Kelsey McGregor of McGregor Homes.

In defense of their guidelines, the historic preservation planner for the city of Chattanooga pointed out that the area’s design standards are based on recommendations from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, which emphasize preserving character-defining elements of a home. As a result, owners of pre-existing homes in St. Elmo are also subject to the neighborhood’s regulations, whether they want to replace historic windows with energy-efficient options or build a garage or addition on their property. For this reason, local Realtors have said that some potential homeowners choose not to look at homes in the neighborhood because they won’t be able to make the changes they want.

And yet, many people seem to enjoy living in historic St. Elmo, with some defending the committee’s actions as necessary to prevent ridiculous projects and changes. However, these people say that proper research and planning are needed to help ensure that a project will be approved. And while some new builders might be tempted to ignore these regulations and skip the review process, they warn that this could cause significant difficulty for the construction process, as the project will most likely be stopped with a formal order.

Regulations for building in historic St. Elmo can be found at www.st-elmo.org, under “St. Elmo Historic District Design Review Guidelines.” Similarly, building standards for other historic areas in Chattanooga can be found on the city’s website.

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