If you have ever tried to add a new fence or replace your front stairs, you will have experienced the reach of historic preservation in the District; Georgetown is one of 46 designated historic districts and is the only federal historic district in D.C. Trying to get a needed permit for a project approved, especially in Georgetown, can seem like a daunting task. But knowing how the system works can save you from headaches during the process.
Almost all work in D.C. that affects the exterior of your home requires getting a building permit issued by the D.C. Regulatory Affairs office (DCRA). If you live in one of D.C.'s 46 historic districts, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) or its staff has to sign off on the permit application. Permits for projects in the Georgetown Historic District that are visible from public spaces have an extra approval hoop to pass through—the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts (CFA).
The CFA makes the determination if a project might be seen from a public place, e.g. a sidewalk, the corner of a block, a public alley, or even a park. If it can be, it falls under its jursidiction; otherwise the commission will pass the project back to the HPRB for review. Visible projects range anywhere from steps, railings and replacement windows, to front porches, roof decks and additions.
The Old Georgetown Board (OGB) conducts project reviews for the CFA. Once the OGB reviews a project at its monthly public meeting, it sends its recommendations to the CFA for approval at its next public meeting. CFA-approved recommendations then head back to the HPRB for the final approval.
Once you've been through this process, the "Fine Arts" and "Historic" approval boxes on the permit application are checked off. Keep in mind you may still need other DCRA departmental signoffs on a permit application (e.g. structural, electrical, etc.), even for replacement windows!
When thinking of starting a project, it is a good idea to talk to your neighbors early to see if they have any objections or suggestions. You might also want to notify the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), which often reviews projects and might provide comments to the OGB.
To save time and money, check with CFA staff at the beginning of any home improvement project, even before talking to an architect or contractor. For example, if you are thinking of an addition to the back of your home, CFA staff might tell you whether they think the OGB might support such a project. (A type of project that would probably get OGB support would be an exact replacement of an existing front porch.) They might also advise on the appropriate historic architectural style for your house; many Georgetown houses have ended up being an unsightly mix of styles over the years.
For new construction, the CFA will probably advise that the project go through a conceptual review before you file for a permit. Conceptual review offers a chance for feedback from the OGB on design ideas and plans. With that in mind, you can make any suggested or required design changes before you get too far down the road on drawing up the final plans for the permit application.
If the CFA suggests a conceptual review, file an application for concept review with the DCRA. You can find submission requirements on the CFA's website and the application form can be picked up at the DCRA office; it's not available on their website. Otherwise, file two sets of permit application materials with the DCRA —one set gets sent to the HPRB, and the other to the CFA.
Some Good News
While this process may seem lengthy and bureaucratic, there is some good news. CFA and HPRB staff often confer during the review process; rarely does a project go through separate review by each office, or gain approval from one and rejection from another. Once the CFA receives your permit materials, it has a 45-day trigger to return their recommendations the HPRB, which generally accepts the CFA's recommendations.
Once you are armed with knowledge and an understanding of the process, you can save valuable project time and money, while making your own contribution to historic home preservation.
In future columns, I will discuss specific types of projects, such as additions, alterations, site work and replacement windows. I'll help you figure out what to look for in choosing architects and contractors. I hope to follow the experiences of a few Patch readers through their own home improvement projects. If you are interested in sharing your experience with the Georgetown Patch community, contact editor Shaun Courtney, firstname.lastname@example.org.