Long Fight Over Historic Church Ends in S.F.

     (CN) – The City and County of San Francisco are not liable for the decade-long delay of the $3 million sale of an abandoned Methodist church on Russian Hill, a federal judge ruled.
     The owners of the church, the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the Methodist Church, accused San Francisco of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by delaying the sale of the property.
     Church officials claimed the delay prevented them from using the expected money to engage in “religious exercise” and continue their religious mission by developing its congregation.
     U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers disagreed in her Nov. 24 ruling. She found that the act’s “statutory language, its legislative history, and relevant case law establish that commercial endeavors such as that here – the sale of property for the construction of market rate condominiums – even if undertaken by the Conference in order to fund its religious mission, do not constitute ‘religious exercise’ protected by RLUIPA.”
     The judge added: “The Conference concedes that it did not intend to use the property for a religious purpose. Instead, it obtained title to the property for the sole purpose of ‘facilitat[ing] the sale to a third party.'”
     Church officials also claimed the decade-long delay interfered with its First Amendment rights and amounted to a “taking” of the property.
     Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the church’s RLUIPA claim but denied San Francisco’s motion to dismiss the church’s First Amendment claim.
     She dismissed the church’s regulatory takings claim but allowed it to amend the claim “to identify with specificity the precise actions upon which this claim is based.”
     Since 2004, the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the Methodist Church has sought to sell its abandoned church at 1601 Larkin St. The church was built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake demolished much of the area, but church officials say it no longer was safe for use in 2003.
     Pacific Polk Properties a year later agreed to buy the property for $3 million, planning to demolish the building and build condominiums, church officials say. But the San Francisco Planning Department refused to issue permits without an environmental impact report, which was published in April 2007.
     One month later, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors suggested the church be designated an historic landmark and referred the matter to its Historic Preservation Board. The church and Pacific Polk Properties took the matter to court and prevailed in 2008.
     Despite winning its court battle, the church and Pacific Polk Properties could not demolish the building to make way for the planned 27-unit condo development without the permits and a zoning variance to allow the demolition, which church officials say the city denied in 2010 based on the environmental impact report and public comments.
     City officials in 2012 told Pacific Polk Properties to submit a revised conditional use permit application based on the existing environmental impact report, but church officials say the city published a new environmental impact report later that year and denied the application, which delayed the project again.
     Pacific Polk Properties in 2013 revised its condo development and filed a new application based on the latest environmental study, and church officials say the Planning Commission finally granted the necessary permits, resulting in the building’s demolition in May this year.