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  • SF Examiner - Laura Waxmann

Property owner sues city over order to rebuild illegally demolished house

A property owner who was ordered by the city to rebuild an exact replica of a Twin Peaks home by a well-known architect after he illegally demolished it has filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, claiming it violates his civil rights.

Two lawsuits filed in federal and state courts Thursday are seeking to overturn the Planning Commission’s decisions and asking for a total of $10 million in damages — the amount it would cost owner Ross Johnston to comply with the commission’s order to rebuild the Largent House by architect Richard Neutra at 49 Hopkins Ave., according to his attorney, Andrew Zacks.

Also named in the lawsuit is the San Francisco Planning Department, the Department of Building Inspection and the Board of Supervisors, which according to the complaint has the “authority to hear appeals of Planning Commission decisions on conditional use authorization applications.”

Johnston bought the two-story home for $1.7million in 2017, complete with “permits to demolish 80 percent of that property and build a brand new almost 4,000 square foot house,” Zacks told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday, adding that “more of the house was demolished than was supposed to.”

According to court documents, the home’s previous owner initiated the permit approval process to redevelop the property in 2014, and was authorized by the Planning Department to remove an existing sunroom, make interior alterations and build a “vertical addition above the second floor,” among other changes. Those plans were approved by The City’s Department of Building Inspection.

“In May of 2016, DBI approved and stamped the 2014 Permit for the proposed three-story, four-bedroom/four bath single-family redevelopment, meaning ground could now be broken for construction,” per the lawsuit filed in state court.

When Johnston took over the property in 2017, he hired a general contractor to begin the demolition work.

“The complexity of the initial demolition work required that the vast majority of it be done by hand in a manner that effectively “reverse-engineered” the original construction,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that the construction crew deemed the house “structurally compromised” during the demolition, and made “a judgment call in the field to immediately remove the compromised structure,” even though the 2014 permit dictated that certain structural elements of the home had to be maintained as part of the new construction project.

The City was made aware of the tear down by way of a DBI complaint from a neighbor in October 2017, and Johnston’s representatives were asked to submit new plans to the Planning Department “incorporating the portions of the demolition that had exceeded the scope of the 2014 permit” and to seek a conditional use authorization, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit blames negative press in the following months for the Planning Commission’s resistance to moving the revised plans forward.

With a unanimous vote in December, the commission ordered Johnston to rebuild the house according to its original plans, and to chronicle the story of the Neutra home’s illegal demolition and replica in a sidewalk plaque.

Johnston attempted to appeal the decision to The City’s Board of Appeals, which would require the support of five supervisors or a requisite number of neighbors signing off on the appeal — neither of which Johnston was able to secure.

“They left my client without any process to file an appeal, said Zacks, adding that the commission “extended its authority beyond where the code allows it” by ordering the home to be replicated.

“They overtook the authority of Board of Appeals and the zoning administrator, which are the proper agencies in San Francisco to do enforcement,” said Zacks.

Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards said that he believes the commission “made the right decision.”

“It put the big spotlight on the problem with illegal demotions here in The City — if nothing else it put the spotlight where it needed to shine,” said Richards. Richards noted that Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation a week before the commission’s ruling to push back against a growing trend of illegal demolition of residences by real estate speculators vying to build larger projects in their place.

In regard to the lawsuits, Richards said that the property owner has the “constitutional right to exhaust all [of his] legal remedies.”

The City Attorney’s Office is still reviewing the lawsuit and therefore not able to discuss its specifics, said spokesperson John Cote, who added that more broadly, “illegal demolition is something we take very seriously.”

“One can’t just violate City laws and then ask for forgiveness later,” said Cote. “It doesn’t work that way.”

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