Historic Preservation

"How do we know it's us without our past?" - John Steinbeck

    Santa Clara County's Heritage

    Ohlone lodges

    The early inhabitants of Santa Clara County were the indigenous Ohlone People​, thought to occupy the area at least 1,000 years before Spain began to colonize California in the eighteenth century.

    Spanish settlers established the valley's first mission and pueblo in Santa Clara and San Jose respectively, and governed "El Llano de los Robles" (Plain of the Oaks), until the Mexican Revolution led to Mexican control from the 1820s through 1840s. In 1850 California was admitted to the Union and Santa Clara County was incorporated, becoming one of the state's original 27 counties. Deriving its name from Mission Santa Clara, the county originally included much of what was Washington Township (part of Union City and Fremont) in Alameda County. The current county boundaries, delineating an area of approximately 1,315 square miles, were set in 1853 when Alameda County was established.

    From 1850 to 1870, ranchers made a transition from raising cattle and sheep to cultivating hay and grain. French immigrants planted the first vineyards. Quicksilver (mercury) mining flourished. California's first colleges were founded in Santa Clara County. The coming of the railroad produced a small boom in real estate. After 1870, orchards began displacing grain fields and vineyards. The Santa Clara Valley became the world's leading producer of canned fruit and processed dried fruit, and the area was dubbed "Valley of Heart's Delight." By the end of the nineteenth century, wealthy San Franciscans, such as Leland Stanford and James Lick, established farms and summer homes in the county.

    Santa Clara County remained pastoral until World War II when many people were brought to California to work in war-related industries. The area attracted a concentration of electronics firms and experienced a dramatic population influx. Mass-produced housing spread across the Santa Clara Valley, and orchard land was subdivided and developed for housing.



      The tangible evidence of Santa Clara County's heritage remains all around us. Our historic resources offer a link to our past, an understanding of our cultural origins, landmarks by which to navigate, and a sense of place that distinguishes Santa Clara County from all other places. In the face of increasing homogenization, urbanization, and anonymity of American culture and place, our historic resources become even more significant. If preserved and integrated with the new; historic resources immeasurably enrich the experience of urban and rural landscapes. Rehabilitation and restoration for new uses, especially within older urban communities, can stimulate economies and heritage tourism, and reverse urban decline in ways "urban renewal" programs of the recent past often failed to do.

      To promote public awareness of historic resources, the Historical Heritage Commission has prepared a slide presentation of projects that availed funding through the Historical Heritage Grant Program.

      Upon request, a member of the Commission will be available to present the program to civic groups, historical societies, non-profit organizations and other community groups.

      Stewardship of Santa Clara County's historic resources, with their unique opportunities and challenges, is the focus of the Historic Preservation Program. The County has taken the opportunity to address the challenges by incorporating policies and strategies for historic resources into its General Plan. The plan recognizes the importance of historic resources and outlines a general approach to their treatment:

      • Inventory and evaluation;
      • Prevention or minimization of adverse impacts; and
      • Restoration, enhancement and commemoration.

      These three basic strategies serve as the foundation for Santa Clara County's Historic Preservation Program and the work of the Historical Heritage Commission.

      ​​Historic Context: County of Santa Clara​​​

      South County Historic Context



      The Santa Clara County Heritage Resource Inventory (Inventory) was begun in 1962, when a preliminary inventory was prepared for the Santa Clara County Planning Department in an initial effort to identify and evaluate historical landmarks throughout the county. Information was gathered through a public participation process and personal interviews, telephone conversations and correspondence with individuals having special knowledge of the history of a specific area. Evaluation was based on historical, cultural, and architectural value to the countywide community.

      When the Historical Heritage Commission (HHC) was established in 1973, it found that many of the structures identified a decade earlier had been demolished. The HHC embarked on the important on-going mission of establishing the Inventory, and compiling and updating the listing of historic resources. With the help of volunteers and the Junior League of San Jose, the Inventory was published in 1975 and a second edition was issued in 1979. The Inventory was revised and reformatted in 1999, and properties located within the city limits of municipalities in the county were removed.​


      The Inventory is an important component of Santa Clara County's preservation planning efforts. It is a resource that informs land use and development decisions of the Santa Clara County Planning Office. Properties listed in the Inventory are subject to a demolition review process by the HHC and the Board of Supervisors Santa Clara County Code, Division C17, Article IV, Section C17-23. Review is also required in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act to determine if any significant historic resources will be adversely impacted by proposed projects. In addition, the Planning Office considers proposals for other permits, and the Inventory provides a source for identifying properties that require special consideration in the permitting process.

      The Inventory serves other County departments undertaking projects that may affect listed historic resources. Other departments are encouraged to confer with the Planning Office to determine whether historic resources are located in their project area. The Inventory may also be used to respond to inquiries about the development potential of properties, and to educate the public of Santa Clara County's historic, cultural and architectural heritage.

      Maintaining the Inventory

      The HHC, in conjunction with the Board of Supervisors, maintains the Inventory. The Inventory is intended to be dynamic and to change as resources are added or revisions are made to existing listings. Formal procedures for this process are currently being developed in ordinance form.

      The Inventory is not a definitive list of all of Santa Clara County's historic resources. The Inventory only includes those properties located within the unincorporated areas of the county and many properties in this vast area have not yet been identified or recorded. It is the goal of the HHC and the Historic preservation Program to continue this important survey work to evaluate the historic significance of properties throughout the county.

      Historic Resource Surveys

      Historic resource surveys are the foundation of preservation planning across the country, and form the basis for many preservation-related decisions. Surveys identify, record, and evaluate properties and provide a local base of information about community history and architecture. They create a photographic and written record of historic places that is important in recognizing, and preserving the heritage of the past. Survey files are maintained as a permanent record to assist in evaluating properties for nomination to local, state and federal registers and facilitating decision-making about the potential impact of public and private projects affecting historic properties. Surveys can also educate and raise awareness, directing new attention to familiar sights, or forgotten places, and focusing new investment in those resources.


      The following are examples of documentation projects completed in Santa Clara County that are available for viewing in the Planning Office.

      Historic American Building Survey (HABS) During the summers of 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980, teams of student architects compiled historical data, and produced scale drawings and photographs of 30 major historic properties in Santa Clara County. Visit the Library of Congress website to view the documentation.

      Heritage Resource Inventory Update

      Heritage Resource Inventory list

      An ongoing project is to confirm and update the documentation of historic resources already listed in the Inventory, with the gradual addition of new properties as they are approved by the Board of Supervisors. Information gained from this updated list will help streamline the land development process and provide a better understanding of the history of Santa Clara County.

      The Inventory began as a preliminary survey of "Historical Landmarks" in 1962. This early version of the Inventory was updated in 1975, 1979, and again in 1999. While the information included in the Inventory is interesting and provides a solid foundation, it does not meet current statewide documentation and preservation planning standards. Subsequent updates to the Inventory document will include each listed property on the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation Forms 523 (commonly known as DPR forms). These state inventory forms contain much needed technical information that was not originally recorded in the early surveys.

      South County Historic Context.

      The Planning Office contracted with historical consultants, Dill Design Group (Phase I) and Archives and Architecture (Phase II) to prepare the DPR forms and analyze the historical data. Archives and Architecture is revisiting the Phase II listed resources to describe conditions on each property, conduct additional research to confirm existing information, and provide a professional analysis of historical significance using recognized national and state criteria. Additionally, Archives and Architecture is preparing a historical context report for unincorporated Santa Clara County. This report will address the development history of Santa Clara County, in relation to existing historical resources, and outline why the resources are significant and how they relate to each other in type and theme.​


      Identification of Potential Historic Resources (Part I and Part II forms)

      On October 17, 2006 the Board of Supervisors adopted the Historic Preservation Ordinance, enacting Division C17 of the Santa Clara County Ordinance Code.

      Background on the Development of the Ordinance.

      Basic components of the ordinance are:

      • purpose and intent
      • definitions
      • heritage resource inventory
      • landmark designation criteria and process
      • landmark alteration requirements and demolition procedures
      • appeals
      • hardship determination
      • maintenance
      • enforcement

      The Board of Supervisors updated the Historic Preservation Ordinance on December 1, 2009 to clarify the owner consent process for landmark designation.

      The Mills Act is a state-sponsored economic incentive program offering a reduction in property taxes for owners of "qualified historical properties" who pledge to preserve, restore, rehabilitate, and maintain the historical and architectural character of their properties. The Mills Act furthers the County's General Plan goals of restoring and enhancing historic resources. The resulting effects are the promotion of heritage tourism, visual enrichment of our experience of urban and rural landscapes, and a fostering of pride in ownership. 

      What is a Qualified Historical Property?

      A "qualified historical property" is privately owned, not exempt from property taxation, and listed on any official federal, state, county or city register. A property includes the qualified historical improvement and may also include any land on which it is situated.

      How Do I Participate in the Mills Act?

      If the property is already a "qualified historical property"

      1. The applicant submits a Mills Act application to the Planning Office.
      2. The application, including a plan for preservation, will be evaluated by the Historical Heritage Commission (Commission) at a regular monthly public meeting. The Commission makes findings whether the property is a "qualified historical property" and whether the
      3. If the Commission recommends approval to the Board of Supervisors (Board), a preservation contract will be prepared by the Office of the County Counsel which incorporates the standards and/or conditions stipulated by the Commission and agreed upon by the property owner.
      4. The recommendation of the Commission and the preservation contract will be presented to the Board for approval or denial. (Note: Entering into a Mills Act contract is discretionary by the Board.)
      5. If the Board confirms the findings of the Commission, the preservation contract will be approved and formally executed between the property owner and the County of Santa Clara.
      6. The Assessor's office will then make the appropriate changes to the assessment roll.

      If the property is not already a "qualified historical property"?

      1. It must meet the eligibility criteria for listing on any official federal, state, county or city register.
      2. The owner must complete the historic designation process prior to submitting a Mills Act application.

      What are the General Terms of a Preservation Contract?

      At a minimum the contract will include, but not be limited to, the following items:

      • A 10 year term, automatically renewable each year unless the non-renewable procedures have been implemented.
      • A plan for restoration, rehabilitation or preservation of the property to conform to the previously cited historic preservation standards and codes as required by the Mills Act.
      • Requirement for periodic examination of the property by Commission staff to assure compliance with the contract.
      • Requirement that the contract will be recorded by the Assessor and will bind all future successors in interest for the duration of the contract.
      • Requirement that the owner or agent shall provide written notice of the contract to the State Office of Historic Preservation within 6 months of entering into the contract.
      • Use restrictions the Board deems reasonable to carry out the purpose of the contract.
      • Non-renewable/cancellation provisions as provided by the Mills Act. (Note: The Board may cancel a contract after the prescribed process is followed if it determines that the owner has breached any of the conditions of the contract, allowed the property to deteriorated to the point that it no longer meets the standards for a "qualified historical property" or determines the owner has failed to restore or rehabilitate the property in the manner specified in the contract.)
      • Method of assessment as provided by the Mills Act.

      How Will My Tax Rate be Adjusted?

      Property under a Mills Act preservation contract will be valued by the capitalization of income method. The modified property tax rate will vary from property to property based on each individual appraisal. Property owners who have a pre-Proposition 13 tax rate (no change of ownership since March 1, 1975) will probably not see a tax reduction.

      Application Form


      Historic Preservation combining zoning districts (-h districts) provide for the preservation of registered cultural heritage resources. These districts protect and conserve sites and areas of significant historic value, architectural value or aesthetic interest. For specific criteria and procedures, refer to Chapter 3.50 of the Santa Clara County Zoning Ordinance.

      Designated Districts

      Santa Clara County currently has two -h district designations.

      HHC Training on Historic Districts


      The Board of Supervisors of the County of Santa Clara established the Historical Heritage Grant Program (HHGP) in 1990 to promote historic preservation and the awareness of significant cultural, historical, and archaeological resources within Santa Clara County. Funding is provided through the dedication of a portion of the County Park Charter Development Funds to the HHGP.

      The Board of Supervisors is not obligated to fund any HHGP projects, even if the project has been deemed eligible for funding and/or the Historical Heritage Commission recommends funding in any amount.


      Local public agencies and non-profit corporations with 501(c)(3) certification, located within the geographical limits of Santa Clara County, are eligible to apply for grant funds for projects within the geographical limits of Santa Clara County.


      A technical workshop was held in April 2013 to provide prospective applicants with technical information regarding the grant program and application packet filing process. Prospective applicants are strongly encouraged to attend this workshop before preparing a grant application packet.


      Before a project can be considered, applicants must submit an application packet that demonstrates the fulfillment of all of the following conditions:

      • The HHGP is limited to projects involving the development of real property, as opposed to personal property. Real property consists of land and things affixed to land that cannot be moved.
      • The project must be located in a public park or on private property dedicated to park purposes. A public park is a park that is owned or operated by the County, a city, or other public agency, such as an open space district. Eligible private property is land that is (i) actually used and dedicated to use for park purposes by deed or other long term legal agreement, (ii) open to the public on a non-discriminatory basis, and (iii) is designated for park use under the applicable general plan and zoning designation.
      • Where the park use is established by agreement, such as a lease, the agreement must provide for continual use for park purposes for a minimum of twenty years on a non-discriminatory basis, and the applicant must submit documentation from the property owner consenting to the project and committing to the execution of the Project Agreement in the form of the sample resolution (Appendix E).
      • The project must involve the stabilization, preservation, rehabilitation, restoration or interpretation of locally designated (or eligible for local designation) historic resources. Projects that involve stabilization, preservation, rehabilitation or restoration must consist of capital improvements that will materially extend or ensure the useful life of the asset, as opposed to deferred maintenance or general maintenance. Projects that involve the interpretation of historic resources must involve capital improvements, such as permanent interpretive signage affixed to the land or structure, rather than reports, studies, or moveable objects.
      • The project must involve a locally designated historic resource (landmark or contributing resource to a local historic district or the equivalent) protected by a city or County historic preservation ordinance. If the historic resource is not locally designated at the time of application, the applicant must complete the designation process prior to Board of Supervisors approval of the project agreement.
      • Project must have all of the necessary funding in place, excluding the HHGP grant amount, at the time of application. HHGP funds cannot be used as seed money to leverage additional monies in a future fund raising campaign.


      The following projects are ineligible for funding:

      • Projects involving the reconstruction or replication of a historic resource that is no longer extant. Projects must involve an existing locally designated (or eligible for local designation) historic resource.
      • Projects in the planning and feasibility stage and services connected with such projects (e.g. hiring a consultant to conduct a historic resource survey or to prepare a historic report, conditions assessment or feasibility study).
      • Projects involving the purchase of real or personal property (e.g. moveable objects not permanently attached to real property such as equipment, computers, furniture, display cabinets, interior accessories and publications).
      • Projects involving areas of the historic resource that are used for administrative or non-public functions. Grant funds cannot be used to develop or to support areas dedicated to operation, maintenance, or administrative activities (e.g. work on a portion of a facility dedicated to staff or private use such as offices, storage or private reception areas). Such functions may exist within the facility, but the HHGP cannot fund work items specifically in these areas. Grant funding must be applied to areas of the facility that are open or visible to all Santa Clara County residents on a non-discriminatory basis. 


      Low funding priorities are projects or elements of a project that are state or federal code compliance, infrastructure improvements (e.g. utilities, landscaping, signage), new construction (e.g. an addition to a historic resource), or interior finishes that are not preservation focused. In addition, projects and grantees that have previously received HHGP funds may be considered a low funding priority.


      $252,063.39 is available for Fiscal Year 2014.


      For additional information please review the Historical Heritage Grant Program Application and Procedures Guide, available via download below:



      Mr. Christian Elliott, Management Analyst
      County of Santa Clara, Parks and Recreation Department
      Telephone: (408) 355-2291

      Monument building


      May is annual National Historic Preservation Month. Every year, the County of Santa Clara joins communities across the nation to celebrate and increase awareness of historic preservation. This month, the County Board of Supervisors and the Historical Heritage Commission invite the residents of Santa Clara County to attend the first annual Santa Clara County Preservation Alliance Preservation Awards Night.



      In recognition of 2024 National Preservation Month, the Santa Clara County Historic Heritage Commission, the San Jose Historic Landmarks Commission, the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, and History San Jose have joined together to form the Santa Clara County Preservation Alliance and host an Awards Night honoring individuals and organizations who have made significant historical and cultural preservation contributions throughout Santa Clara County.

      This event will be held on Friday May 17, 2024 at 7pm at History San Jose Park. Additional information and tickets.

      SCCPA Historic Preservation Awards are presented to individuals, organizations, companies, and public agencies whose contributions demonstrate significant achievements in preserving the history and heritage of Santa Clara County.

      For more information, see Santa Clara County Preservation Alliance website about National Preservation Month.





      About Historic Preservation Month

      Historic Preservation Month is an annual event instituted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving historic places and revitalizing our communities. The event is intended to celebrate our nation’s diverse and unique heritage. People nationwide are invited to mark the occasion by participating in local and regional events throughout the month of May.

      For environmental review purposes under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the screening of all demolition permit applications is required to identify designated historic properties. Process is done through the submittal of the Identification of Properties for Historic Significance form and the assessment of historic significance by staff or in some cases, a qualified consultant.


      1. Applicants must submit to the Building Inspection counter:
      2. If the property is not listed on the Santa Clara County Heritage Resource Inventory (Inventory), no further historical review will be required.
      3. If the property is not a designated historic property and is not listed in the Inventory:
        • It may be determined that the subject structure and/or associated feature does not meet the threshold of significance according to CEQA. The demolition permit will require no further historical review;
        • It may be determined that the subject structure and/or associated feature does potentially meet the threshold of significance according to CEQA. The applicant will be required to retain a qualified consultant to prepare State Historic Resource Inventory forms or an historic report.
          • If the consultant determines the property does not meet the threshold of significance according to CEQA and staff concurs, the applicant will be required to apply for a Petition from Exemption for Environmental Review (Categorical Exemption) and to pay the appropriate fee. The demolition permit will require no further historical review.
          • If the consultant determines the property does meet the threshold of significance according to CEQA and staff concurs, the applicant will be required to apply for environmental clearance and pay the environmental assessment initial fee. The HHC will review and comment on the assessment at a regular public meeting. The Board of Supervisors will consider the CEQA documentation and the HHC's comments at a public hearing and take action on the request. The applicant may be required to comply with mitigation measures to avoid or reduce the effects of the proposed project.
      4. If the property is a designated historic property and/or is listed in the Inventory, the applicant will be required to apply for environmental clearance and pay the environmental assessment initial fee. The HHC will review and comment on the assessment at a regular public meeting and forward a written recommendation to the Board of Supervisors within 45 days of the date which the application was referred to the HHC. The Board of Supervisors will consider the CEQA documentation and the HHC's comments at a public hearing. If the Board of Supervisors determines that there is no feasible alternative to demolition, then the issuance of a demolition permit may be deferred for up to 180 days from the initial date of application.

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