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Keeping it real: Waynesville ponders historic district guidelines

The town of Waynesville has hired a consultant to help create mandatory design standards for buildings in historic districts.


If the plan is adopted, additions or renovations to buildings in historic districts would have to be in keeping with the character of the district. Before a property owner could undertake alterations to a building in a historic district, they would have to submit plans and get a “certificate of appropriateness” from the town’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Currently, the town has no mandatory guidelines on the books — only recommended best practices for performing renovations in historic districts.

“Voluntary guidelines only go so far,” said Philip Thomason, the consultant and head of Thomason and Associates based in Nashville. 

The town received a $10,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant from the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior to fund the project and chipped in $5,000 as well. With that money, Waynesville’s Historic Preservation Commission hired Thomason and Associates to help shape the mandatory guidelines, as well as draft an illustrated manual for how to preserve the look and feel of Waynesville’s local landmarks and structures.

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“We are all very thrilled,” said Nikki Owens, a member of the historic preservation commission.

More than 2,000 communities in the country have historic district guidelines, which can be as strict as stipulating paint color pallets in Charleston or clapboard siding in coastal villages in Maine.

In Waynesville, the new mandatory design guidelines will address signage, lighting, historically appropriate materials and preserving original architectural details. It would also stipulate “unobtrusive placement” of heating and cooling systems or energy efficiency technology.

The guidelines should be ready for review by Waynesville’s historic commission and the state preservation office next month.

Thomason listed several benefits to maintaining historic buildings and districts. He said that property values increase when the historic integrity of buildings is maintained.

An old-time feel can actually draw more tourists to Waynesville, particularly if downtown Waynesville or Frog Level become a local historic district.

“The heritage tourist is the best tourist you can get because they stay longer, spend more and make repeat trips,” Thomason said. “It creates jobs, promotes downtown revitalization.”

Emphasizing what is unique about Waynesville architecture could also set it apart from other mountain towns that it competes with for tourists. 

“Everybody is trying to get the same sort of tourism dollars,” Thomason said.

Technically, the guidelines would only apply to local historic districts. In Waynesville, Frog Level, Main Street and a couple of side blocks downtown are on the National Register of Historic Places, but they are not considered local historic districts. The guidelines being developed would only apply to those designated as local historic districts.

The town currently has a set of mandatory design guidelines for its 12 local landmarks, but they are not Waynesville-specific or user-friendly. 

The new standards will also fix that, detailing mandatory guidelines for maintaining the landmarks, using photos and emphasizing Waynesville-specific features, such as cast iron and gooseneck lighting.

The town tried to accomplish something similar about 10 years ago but the timing wasn’t right, said Planning Director Paul Benson.

“It didn’t meet with a lot of success,” Benson said. “[We put the] cart before the horse.”

The revitalization of Waynesville, particularly the downtown, was just starting and the town was not part of the national historic register yet. Now, Waynesville businesses are doing well, and people are more open to the idea.

However, just because the standards will be mandatory does not mean they can’t change once set.

“I think we need to keep in mind that this is a living document,” said Shawn Leatherwood, a member of the historic preservation commission. “The document doesn’t have to start out reaching for the golden ring.”

Historic district guidelines can sometimes meet opposition. Property owners can see the additional mandatory guidelines as an extra burden that penalizes them. 

But Thomason said that if done correctly, business owners could keep restoration costs low, and even get some of their investment back through tax credits.

In the end, the increase in property value associated with the renovations will benefit the owners as well, Thomason said.

The goal is not to freeze structures or areas in time, Thomason said. It is simply to make sure new construction or additions fall in with the look of their surroundings.

“We are not trying to encase them forever. We are not trying to maintain a museum piece,” Thomason said. “You are just trying to make the new construction as compatible as possible.”

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