The City of Rancho Mirage completed a historic resources survey in 2003. The primary goal of the survey was to systematically identify and document the City’s historic resources. The City has adopted an ordinance, which allows for the official designation of historic resources and provide some level of protection against their demolition and alteration. Specific provisions of the ordinance, may be viewed via the City’s Municipal Code, Chapter 15.27. The following are the answers to some commonly asked questions about historic preservation.

What is a historic resource?

A historic resource is a building, structure, site, object, or district meeting certain criteria of significance established by the federal, state, or local government. There are two programs at the federal level for the designation of historic resources: National Historic Landmarks and the National Register of Historic Places. At the state level, there are three designation programs: California Historical Landmarks, California Points of Historical Interest; and the California Register of Historical Resources at the local level.  The City of Rancho Mirage may designate a structure or site as an historical resource upon certain findings. (see Chapter 15.27.070B)

What is the National Register of Historic Places?

The National Register was established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The register recognizes properties of local, state, and national significance. To be eligible for listing in the National Register, a property must be at least fifty years of age and possess significance in American history and culture, architecture, or archaeology. Properties of potential significance must have integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association and:

  1. are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  3. embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represent the work of a master, or possess high artistic values, or represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  4. yield, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

There are a series of criteria considerations, which will allow, for example, properties that are less than fifty years old but that possess exceptional significance to also be eligible for National Register inclusion.

What is the California Register of Historical Resources?

The California Register was established in 1992 and consists of properties that are listed automatically (for example, properties listed in the National Register) and those that must be nominated through an application and public hearing process. The criteria for eligibility of listing in the California Register are based upon National Register criteria. Integrity requirements are generally not as stringent as those for the National Register. In addition, properties eligible to the California Register are not required to be fifty years old; instead, it must be demonstrated that a sufficient period of time has elapsed to understand a property’s historical importance. California Register properties possess significance at the local, state, or national level, under one or more of the following four criteria:

  1. It is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of local or regional history, or the cultural heritage of California or the United States; or
  2. It is associated with the lives of persons important to local, California, or national history; or
  3. It embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or represents the work of a master, or possesses high artistic values; or
  4. It has yielded, or has the potential to yield, information important in the prehistory or history of the local area, California, or the nation.

How is a property designated a historic resource?

Applications for the National and California Registers can be obtained from the State Office of Historic Preservation (OHP). In either case, the property or district cannot be listed over the objection of the owner or majority of owners.

National Register applications are submitted to the OHP for staff review. When applications are deemed complete, they are placed on the next available agenda of the State Historic Resources Commission (SHRC). Applications approved by the SHRC are forwarded to the National Park Service. The final determination is made forty-five days after receipt by the Keeper of the National Register in Washington D.C.

California Register applications are submitted by certified mail to the clerk of the local government in whose jurisdiction the resource is located. Upon receiving written comments from the local government or ninety days after submitting the application, the application is sent to the OHP. Within thirty days, OHP staff will ensure that the application is complete and notify the owner of the resource. The application is then placed on the next available agenda of the SHRC for action.

The City of Rancho Mirage’s historic preservation ordinance established procedures for the local designation of landmarks and landmark districts. Typically, such procedures include the submittal of an application for designation demonstrating how the nominated property meets the City’s criteria of significance, a public hearing for evidence for and against the nomination to be presented, and official action concurring with or rejecting the nomination.

Can a designated property be altered or demolished?

The National and California Register are primarily honorary designations. The federal and state governments do not monitor the alteration or demolition of properties listed in the National and California Registers. Environmental review may be required under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) if a property is threatened by a project. Additionally, projects that are funded or permitted by the federal government that have the potential to affect historic properties are required to go through a consultation process to attempt to avoid or mitigate potential adverse effects.

For the City of Rancho Mirage, properties that are designated an historical resource under the City’s Municipal Code must follow certain steps before any alterations.   Generally, this process does allow a designated property to be altered, but the alterations are reviewed to ensure that they are compatible with the historic character.

Are properties identified in a survey of historic resources protected from alteration or demolition?

The purpose of a historic resources survey is to identify properties that may be eligible for historical resource designation under federal, state, and local law. The City of Rancho Mirage has adopted an ordinance that would provide some level of protection to officially designated landmarks as well as properties located in historic districts.

What are the advantages of landmark designation?

Designated properties may be eligible for financial incentives. The Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program is the main source of federal assistance for historic preservation. The program is only available to income-producing properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 established a 20% tax credit for the substantial rehabilitation of historic buildings for commercial, industrial or rental residential purposes. To qualify for tax credits, the rehabilitation must be performed in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation must also meet the substantial expenditures test that requires rehabilitation costs to exceed $5,000 or the adjusted basis of the building.

The Mills Act (California Government Code Section 50280 et seq. and Revenue and Tax Code Section 439.21) is intended to promote the preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties by providing owners with property tax relief. Unlike the federal tax credits, this financial incentive is primarily used by owners of single-family residential properties. Under the Mills Act, a property owner enters into a voluntary contract with a local government, which allows a substantial property tax reduction on the condition that the property be restored (when necessary) and properly maintained. The contract period is ten years and is binding upon all successive owners who have the same rights and obligations under the contract as the original owner. Eligible properties include those listed in national, state, county, or local registries of historic structures, sites, or places. Utilization of these incentives does not require a property owner to open his property to the public.

What are the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings?

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation were developed by the National Park Service. The Standards were written to assist the long-term preservation of a property’s significance through the preservation of historic materials and features. The Standards pertain to historic buildings of all materials, construction types, sizes, and occupancy and apply to both the exterior and interior of buildings. They also encompass related landscape features and the building’s site and environment, as well as attached, adjacent, or related new construction.

The Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings were developed to assist property owners and managers in applying the more general Standards and contain a specific hierarchy for decision-making in assessing the rehabilitation of any historic building. First, the significant materials and features of a building must be identified. Then a method for their retention and preservation must be found. If the physical condition of character-defining materials warrants additional work, repair is recommended. If deterioration or damage precludes repair, then replacement in kind can be considered.

The primary application of the Standards is in connection with approval of rehabilitation work for the federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program. In addition, the Standards have been adopted by state and local governments all over the country to evaluate alterations and changes to designated landmarks.

What is the State Historical Building Code?

The State Historical Building Code (SHBC) was established in 1979, and revised in 1998. This Code is designed to protect the integrity of historic buildings while addressing life safety issues. City and county building departments are required to apply this alternative code in permitting the repairs, alterations, and additions necessary for the continued use of an historic building or structure. The SHBC applies to buildings and structures included in a national, state, or local registry or inventory of historic resources. The SHBC is intended to ensure a comparable life safety standard to the Uniform Building Code through flexible rather than prescribed means.

Where can I learn more about historic preservation?

For questions about the National Register of Historic Places, contact the National Park Service, 1201 Eye Street, NW, 8th Floor (MS 2280), Washington D.C. 20005, 202-354-2213, www.cr.nps.gov.

The Heritage Preservation Services Division of the National Park Services can provide information regarding the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, as well as the products, services, and grants for historic preservation. They can be reached at the National Park Service, 1201 Eye Street, NW, 2255, Washington D.C. 20005, 202-513-7270.

For questions about state programs such as the California Register of Historic Resources or the Mills Act, contact the State Office of Historic Preservation at 1416 9th Street, Room 1442-7, Sacramento, CA 95814, 916-653-6624, ohp.parks.ca.gov.

Several organizations also provide information, education, and assistance regarding historic preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation may be reached at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20036, 202-588-6000, www.nthp.org. Their Western Regional Office is located at 8 California Street, Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94111-4828, 415-956-0610. The California Preservation Foundation may be reached at 1611 Telegraph Avenue, Suite 820, Oakland, CA 94612, 510-763-0972, www.californiapreservation.org