One of the firm’s focus areas is representing developers who are having trouble getting permits from the San Francisco Planning Commission. Land use firms from all over the Bay Area refer their clients to us when they’ve hit a brick wall. That is exactly what happened in the case of the United Methodist Church at 1601 Larkin St., now under construction into 27 luxury condominiums.
In that case, the developer filed applications for conditional use and building permits in 2004. The Board of Supervisors deemed the dilapidated and abandoned church on the site a historic landmark thereby prohibiting its demolition and ultimate development. Wood Litigation was hired to fight the landmarking decision, which we did.
We beat the City at the San Francisco Superior Court, arguing the landmarking decision violated California state law prohibiting local land use restrictions on religious organization owned property. The City appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal. Douglas Robbins argued the matter in 2009 and the Court of Appeal agreed with his reasoning, voting to affirm the trial court’s decision in a unanimous vote. The decision was of sufficient import to warrant publication in the Court of Appeal reporter at 173 Cal.App.4th 1559.
Somewhat surprisingly, that was not the end of the story. The City reacted poorly to the ruling. The Planning Commission brought the 2004 environmental and CUP permit applications up for hearing and summarily denied both. The firm immediately filed suit winning again at the trial court. The firm also filed in federal District Court alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act aka RLUIPA. That Act requires City undertake to consider and weigh the right of religious organizations when debating land use actions. Faced with another loss, the City settled with the developer and the site is now under construction. The case of high profile and ultimately the subject of a front page article in the leading San Francisco legal newspaper, The Recorder.
If you are a religious organization holding on to seemingly unusable property, call us. State and federal protections afforded to religious organizations are strong and underestimated by municipalities and the legal community alike. Our unique experience handling this case can be used to help you navigate a plan to develop your property.