Heritage Commissions

Since 1992, heritage commissions have offered a valuable means for municipal governments in New Hampshire  to manage, recognize, and protect historical and cultural resources.  Their range of activities is broad but non-regulatory, and determined by each individual municipality to meet their particular needs and wants.  A heritage commission is often described as analogous to a conservation commission.  It advises and assists other local boards and commissions; conducts inventories; educates the public on matters relating to historic preservation; provides information on historical resources; and serves as a resource for revitalization efforts. A heritage commission can also accept and expend funds for a non-lapsing heritage fund, acquire and manage property, and hold preservation easements.

The following is excerpted from Preserving Community Character: Preservation Planning Handbook for New Hampshire.


*RSA 673:1(II), 674:44-b

*A heritage commission does for historical resources much what a conservation commission does for natural resources.

The establishment of a heritage commission at all is purely optional. Some communities choose to have a heritage commission that is only advisory, while others want their commission to take a much more active role with educational and technical responsibilities. In communities that already have a regulatory historic district, or may be contemplating one, the community may decide to have the heritage commission assume the responsibilities of a historic district commission. (Please note: Not every historic district is regulatory. A National Register historic district is not regulatory, but a locally designated historic district and a neighborhood heritage district are regulatory. For more information on these different types of districts, see the section on historic districts in the Preservation Planning Tools, as well as the chapter on Locally Designated Historic Districts.).

If the existing historic district, however, is large and requires frequent meetings to review applications, the community will more likely decide to have a separate heritage commission and historic district commission. These are all local decisions, authorized by the state enabling legislation, whichgives communities a menu, not a mandate.

*As of April, 2005, there were thirty-seven heritage commissions in New Hampshire.

Establishing a Heritage Commission

A heritage commission is created by a municipal council vote or by a town majority vote, depending on how the municipality is governed. The commission's work is guided by officially adopted rules of procedure, and in situations when the commission is undertaking the duties of a historic district commission, regulations. (If your heritage commission will have a historic district commission component, review the chapter on Locally Designated Historic Districts.)

Laying the groundwork

Since establishing a heritage commission is a public process, it is vital that the public understands what a heritage commission is - and is not - before it is brought to a vote. A public informational meeting, newspaper article and presentation to other town boards that could benefit from a commission will help ensure citizens have a solid base of information and can build support for the concept. Fact sheets describing the commission's powers and duties and contact information for citizens behind the initiative can be left at the town hall, library and other frequently visited spots around town.

Legal Process

In towns operating under a town meeting form of government, an article should be placed on the town meeting warrant to see if the town will vote to establish a heritage commission. A sample article follows:

FIRST ARTICLE To see if the Town will vote to establish a Heritage Commission in accordance with the provisions of RSA 673 and RSA 674, or take any other action relating thereto.

If more detail is needed, use "…to establish a Heritage Commission and a Heritage Fund in accordance with the provisions of RSA 673 and RSA 674:44-a, 44-b, 44-d, and 44-c if applicable (supp. 1995)."

SECOND ARTICLE To see if the town will vote to authorize the Board of Selectmen to appoint three [or five or seven] citizens as members of the Heritage Commission pursuant to the provisions of RSA 673:4-a and RSA 673:5, and to appoint up to five additional citizens as alternate members, or take any other action relating thereto.

The article may be included on the warrant either by direct action of the selectmen, or as a petitioned article. If submitted as a petition, twenty-five registered voters or 2% of the town's registered voters must sign the petition, whichever is less, but in either instance, there must be at least ten signatures. An example of a petition follows:

We, the undersigned legal voters of the Town of __________________, New Hampshire, as provided by RSA 39:3, hereby petition the Selectmen of the Town of __________________ to include the following Article in the Warrant for the 20_____ Annual Town Meeting:

[use sample articles above]

In municipalities operating under a council form of government, a member of the legislative body should make a motion for the establishment of the heritage commission. A sample motion follows:

I move that a heritage commission be established pursuant to RSA 673 and RSA 674. Three [or five or seven] citizens shall be appointed as members of the heritage commission pursuant to RSA 673:4-a and RSA 673:5, and up to five additional citizens shall be appointed as alternate members pursuant to the provisions of RSA 673:4-a.

Since city charters can vary widely, and many communities will require a public hearing, be sure to check with the appropriate administrators for the correct process for your community.


* RSA 673:4-a and 673:7

Town officials appoint the members of a heritage commission. The number of members will depend upon the terms of the local ordinance, but must be between three and seven people. In addition, up to five alternate members can be appointed. It is very useful to have several alternates on the commission: they can serve on committees; they have full voting powers if sitting in absence or disqualification of a regular member; and they will be up-to-speed when a regular member's slot opens up.

Each heritage commission member must be a resident of the city or town in which the commission has been established. Terms are for three years, with staggered initial terms. In determining each member's qualifications, the appointing authority should foremost take into consideration the appointee's demonstrated interest and ability to understand, appreciate and promote the purpose of the heritage commission. One member must be a member of the local governing body. While not required, it is recommended that a member of the planning board serve on the commission. If there is a separate historic district commission, one member of that commission must be an ex officio member of the heritage commission. Ideally, some of the remaining slots are filled by citizens with experience in construction, architecture or local history.

The membership requirements of heritage commissions conforms with that of historic district commissions and conservation commissions. Members of a heritage commission are allowed to serve contemporaneously on other municipal boards and commissions, a useful option in communities with few available volunteers. Parallel service also makes a citizen's expertise more widely available to a broader range of local decision making bodies.

Powers and Duties

* RSA 674:44-b

The range of powers and duties of a particular heritage commission is stated in its ordinance and amplified by its regulations, if applicable. Neither the municipality nor the heritage commission can extend its powers beyond those outlined in the statute as follows:

  • Survey and inventory historical and cultural resources
  • Conduct research and publish findings
  • Assist the planning board, as requested, in the development and review of those sections of the master plan which address historical and cultural resources
  • Advise, upon request, local agencies and other local boards in their review of requests on matters affecting or potentially affecting historical and cultural resources
  • Coordinate activities with appropriate service organizations and nonprofit groups
  • Publicize its activities
  • Hire consultants and contractors as needed
  • Perform a study to assess the value in creating a local (regulatory) historic district and prepare an ordinance for it
  • Receive gifts of money and property, both real and personal, in the name of the city or town, subject to the approval of the city council in a city, or the board of selectmen in a town, such gifts to be managed and controlled by the commission for its proper purposes
  • Hold meetings and hearings necessary to carry out its duties

Clearly there is a wide range of activities in which a heritage commission can be involved. Some of the most commonly undertaken - and valuable - are the roles described below.

Resource to local boards & commissions

A heritage commission is uniquely suited to advise local agencies and boards on matters that might affect historical or cultural resources. One of its purposes is to serve as steward for all such resources within the community. For instance, the planning board can consult with the heritage commission if it is reviewing a project that might impact a historic building, or the conservation commission might seek background data on a farm building associated with land it is trying to conserve. The commission could testify in support of a variance before the zoning board of adjustment, if the outcome would preserve a significant resource and retain the spirit of the ordinance. The board of selectmen might seek input when it needs to develop a work program for renovating or disposing of a civic structure. By working closely with other arms of local government, the community can avoid unnecessary adverse impacts to significant historical resources. An early consultation with the commission will often prevent a crisis situation later.

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