Historic homes’ hidden costs, regulatory headaches catch folks off guard

Macon-Bibb’s Design Review Board routinely sees owners who run afoul of historic district guidelines and fail to seek required approvals


Liz Fabian

Cassidy and Alex Mims went before the Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning Commission last summer pleading commissioners to allow them to keep the renovations on their home, which violate historic district guidelines.

The alluring charm and character of a historic home may entice a buyer to sign on the dotted line, but the purchase could present unforeseen future consequences depending on the neighborhood.  

Many property owners don’t realize there are historic guidelines that govern renovations, additions and repairs that dictate what materials can be used. Even chopping down a diseased tree in the front yard of certain neighborhoods needs approval.   

On the first page of the Georgia Realtors’ seven-page disclosure statement, sellers have a box to check disclosing whether the “property has been designated as historic or in a historic district where permission must be received to make modifications and additions.”                              

The designation might get overlooked in the pile of paperwork to sign at closing, and to complicate matters, not all historic districts in Macon-Bibb County are treated alike.

The Design Review Board, which has an advisory role for the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission, is charged with protecting neighborhoods that have historic zoning designations. These design review districts carry their own set of rules and regulations.

Property owners in those districts are required to apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness before working on the exterior of the building or altering the landscape.

“I know there are a lot of folks that think it’s just a pain and it’s an intrusion, but it’s not. It’s for everybody’s protection,” said Chris Clark, who served as Design Review Board chairman before recently rotating off the board after seven years.

Of the 68 properties to go before Macon-Bibb’s DRB from June 30 to the end of February, about a third of them were cases involving a violation of the guidelines. Most of those cases originated with a neighbor’s complaint because P&Z is not staffed to inspect every property in the districts for compliance.

While the historic district designation may be noted on the real estate disclosure form, many of those violators told the board they did not realize there were special rules governing their property.

In Bibb County, the DRB oversees the downtown Central Business Districts and the residential neighborhoods of Cherokee Heights, Vineville, Intown, and Bealls Hill. Maps of those neighborhood boundaries are available under the historic preservation tab on the P&Z website, mbpz.org.   

The GIS/zoning maps on the P&Z website also include several historic districts that are on the National Register of Historic Places, but do not come under design review including Pleasant Hill, East Macon, Fort Hill, Ingleside, North Highlands, Shirley Hills and Tindall Heights.

If property owners are unsure of their zoning designation, plugging in the address in the search bar will give you the zoning classification for that property. 

The Macon-Bibb County Board of Tax Assessors includes zoning information on its property reports. Any district beginning with an “H,” like the public library’s HR-3 designation, or CBD is under regulation by the Design Review Board. (Screenshot)

They also can check the Macon-Bibb County Board of Tax Assessors website where zoning information is included in the report for each parcel.

Any property zoning designation that begins with an “H” is a historic district where the design guidelines are enforced. The same is true for the downtown Central Business District that is zoned CBD. Macon-Bibb’s design guidelines are available online

Once hearing a case, the DRB passes on its recommendation to the Planning & Zoning Commission for final approval or denial. P&Z most often follows the advice of the DRB, but cases vary. There have been instances where a complaint was filed after a DRB decision which led to P&Z revisiting the decision. 

Clark, who lives in the Vineville Historic Zoning District, has sparred with some of his neighbors who became noticeably upset in meetings for not realizing they needed a Certificate of Appropriateness to proceed.  Often property owners spend money on projects without approval or use materials that fall outside the guidelines.

In case after case, the DRB tells property owners that if they had followed the proper procedure and filed an application first, they would have learned what was allowed and would not have wasted money on inappropriate materials.

Once P&Z staff learns about a violation, contact is made with the property owner who is asked to retroactively file for a Certificate of Appropriateness and come before the board, which can insist the work be redone to historic standards. 

In 2021, a new homeowner on Arlington Place hired a contractor who used the wrong type of corrugated metal roofing on that historic home.

Design Review Board member Carrie Robinson, who lives nearby, told the woman: “This is a historic district and there are rules you have to follow. If there is something that you were not made aware of, I’m sorry about that.”

In this case, another nearby house had used the same unauthorized metal roofing but wasn’t reported to the DRB.

Even though the neighbor has it, the rules don’t really go that way,” former Design Review Board member David Thompson told the homeowner. Wish we could have received it before (work was done).” 

That roof issue still has not been resolved a year and a half later, and the DRB has other open cases currently at a stalemate and newer instances where homeowners have refused to retroactively apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness. P&Z has the option to take those property owners to court to compel compliance.

‘Feel bullied by all of this’

Cassidy and Alex Mims, who purchased a home on Hines Terrace in 2015, have been wrangling with DRB since 2019 when they were notified they were in violation of the guidelines for replacing rotting wooden balusters on the front porch with metal and staining the front columns.

The Mims’ home photographed as it was in 1986. (Macon-Bibb Design Review Board)
The metal porch railings and stained columns on the Mims’ Vineville neighborhood home are in violation of historic district guidelines. (Macon-Bibb Design Review Board)

While they said they knew they purchased a historic home, they did not know about the Design Review Board process.

After a flurry of correspondence about the violations, a season of personal hardships for their family and a trip to court, the Mims returned to the DRB last summer pleading for leniency and an update in the guidelines to allow more leeway in materials.

“I mean, I want to walk away from my home, guys, and this is awful. I’m tired of it,” a frustrated Cassidy Mims told board members. “I’m just trying to take care of my home. I feel bullied by all of this.”

She said she didn’t have the money to make the required changes and refused to take out a loan for the project.

DRB reluctantly agreed to let the matter drop with the stipulation that any future repairs or improvements would revert to historic standards.

The next week, after an anonymous complaint about that DRB decision, the Mims were summoned to another hearing before P&Z. Chair Jeane Easom pointed out that it was the Vineville Neighborhood itself that requested the historic district designation to preserve the historic significance of the homes.

“To allow you to not conform when the neighborhood itself wanted to protect the value of their homes, that’s why they put these in place,” Easom said. “So, to go against those rules, I think, is a detriment to the neighborhood itself.”

“I didn’t put those guidelines in place,” a defiant Cassidy Mims replied. “This was a long time ago.”

Alex Mims told the board “stuff like this turns people off,” and told commissioners the county should be more concerned about the blight five streets over.

P&Z Commissioner Josh Rogers, a former executive director of Historic Macon, said ignorance of the guidelines is no excuse.

“The fact is your house is in a design review district. It was when you bought it and you’re responsible for those restrictions whether you knew it or not. You’re responsible for all laws whether you knew it or not,” Rogers sternly told them.

As the hearing went on, tensions increased.

Rogers said, “I do have a big fundamental systemic problem with approving stuff that wasn’t applied for and isn’t appropriate.”

In trying to work with the Mims, former P&Z Commissioner Bryan Scott cited COVID and the couple’s personal struggles when he suggested a compromise to give them a year to replace the metal rails and paint the columns to bring their home into compliance. 

Eight months later, the Mims have yet to paint the columns or replace the balusters.

‘We’re going to do it the right way’

For Design Review Board member George Thomas, his first year has been eye-opening.

“I guess you find out how little people know about the process of what they can and cannot do in historic districts,” Thomas said. “You would think when you buy a historic home you want to preserve the historic aspects of their home. And like certain situations we see around, like people putting in vinyl windows and stuff and that type of thing, you don’t realize how common it can be.”

In some cases, DRB is working with homeowners who already installed the wrong type of windows and were found in violation, or who are applying for a Certificate of Appropriateness using the wrong type of materials.

P&Z Executive Director Jeff Ruggieri said staff will work with applicants who show good faith.

“As long as we see effort being made towards coming into compliance… we’ll keep working and keep talking and keep breaking down barriers and obstacles and clarifying things and working with the folks to get them into compliance,” Ruggieri said. “And when you do that for a little while, you start to figure out the people that are really working with you and the people that are just blowing smoke.”

Those who resist complying can wind up with a citation that lands them in Municipal Court for a misdemeanor violation that could result in fines. Each day a homeowner fails to comply is considered a separate offense under the law.

Municipal Court Judge Crystal Jones said she tries to give people the “benefit of the doubt at least once,” and most often will give them a deadline to resolve the complaint before levying a fine.

“I’d much rather you use money to fix an issue than to use that money to have to pay a fine and then turn around and have to find more money to fix the issue,” Jones said.

Ruggieri agrees.

“Fining someone $250 for putting in the wrong windows and saying ‘good day’ is not really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get compliance. So, if we get to that point, we’d be asking for the windows to be replaced,” Ruggieri said.

When someone’s application is denied or they are found to be in violation, often the applicant will share a list of other properties in the district that are not in compliance for the same thing. Ruggieri, who just completed his first year at the helm of Macon-Bibb P&Z, said he is not interested in retroactive punishment for violations that went undetected.

“I can’t fix every wrong in the past, but as we move forward, we’re going to do it the right way, and to change what we can that we made mistakes on in the past,” he said.

Staff needs ‘more teeth’

Ruggieri currently is working on revising the zoning codes governing Macon-Bibb P&Z and then will concentrate on updates to the current historic district guidelines, which date back to 1986 and were last revised in 1999. The online copy appears to have been created on an electric typewriter.

Recently, a College Street homeowner requested a Certificate of Appropriateness for installing metal awnings, but only canvas awnings are in the historic guidelines.

“Awnings in the regulations now were probably what was available at the time this was written,” new DRB Chairman Will Stanford noted last month. “I’d say these (awnings) are an element that can be taken away… not a permanent feature, and as such we can have some leeway.”

The metal awnings were approved as long as they are painted with a matte finish of a color that blends in with the frame, the DRB ruled.

Former Macon-Bibb Design Review Board chairman Chris Clark, center right, gets an ovation in February after receiving recognition for his seven years of service. (Liz Fabian)

Clark, the newly retired DRB chairman, would like to see the code’s enforcement mechanism strengthened.

“From my standpoint, the thing the code needs, and what the staff needs here is more teeth and more ability to get these things under control very quickly,” Clark said. “The last thing we want to do is sit here and get into a long, drawn-out court battle with anyone. We want to work with them if they’ll work with us.”

Stanford would like to see more education about what it means to own a historic home or commercial building downtown, and for realtors to be more proactive when selling in those districts.

The DRB has discussed drawing up a pamphlet or other materials to teach historic property owners what is expected.

“I think that it could be more forward-facing so that the homeowner understands everything that’s involved when you want to do this, that and the other,” Stanford said.

Just this week, P&Z sent out a public notice asking “Does your property need a Certificate of Appropriateness?” The notice included a link to the Macon-Bibb County Comprehensive Land Development Resolution that governs the DRB’s role in “preserving and protecting the aesthetics, integrity and historic character” of those districts under its charge. 

There is nothing binding a real estate agent to inform a buyer of the added restrictions historic zoning districts bring, but Historic Macon Foundation Executive Director Ethiel Garlington said withholding that information is bad business. 

“It’s unprofessional and setting their clients up for heartache and expenses,” Garlington said.

Mindy Attaway, vice president of administration and finance for the Middle Georgia Association of Realtors, also thinks it would be helpful to have instructional materials to give buyers, especially for those moving from out of state who might not be familiar with the historic districts. 

Attaway has been selling homes for 17 years and as a member of Historic Macon Foundation, she says she strives to make buyers aware of what historic home ownership entails. 

“I guide them in the right direction, but don’t really have an obligation to tell them,” Attaway said. 

Not all licensed real estate agents are realtors, which are required to be members of a realtors’ association and are bound by the National Association of Realtors’ code of ethics, she said. 

As a realtor, Attaway uses the association’s primary disclosure form that includes checking a box for a historic property, but not all real estate agents do. 

The realtors’ association also has a disclosure form used when an heir or someone who hasn’t lived in the house is trying to sell it and might not be familiar enough to disclose its exact condition. That form makes no mention of whether it is a historic property. 

Attaway encourages buyers to protect themselves and do the research to know what is expected. 

“Some think it’s just easy to ask for forgiveness and it’s really not,” she said. 

The original story has been edited to correct the Mims’ address, which is Hines Terrace. Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.