San Fran Commission Requires Owner To Rebuild Historic Home That He Demolished Without Approval

There is an interesting decision out of the San Francisco Planning Commission after an owner demolished a famous house without approval.  The Commission clearly believes that Ross Johnston decided it was better to ask forgiveness than permission in tearing down the home known at the Largent House after securing only a permit for renovation.  The response of the Commission is poetic justice: Johnston has been ordered to build the exact house that he tore down and put up a plaque giving the history of the house and its demolition. 

The Largent House in the Twin Peaks neighborhood  was built in 1936 and designed by famed modern architect, Richard Neutra. It was a 1,300-square-foot house with an indoor swimming pool, but clearly not as large as Johnson wanted.  The suspicion is that Johnson bought the house last year for $1.2 million intending to tear it down for a larger, more valuable new mansion. The commission seems to believe that he wanted to build the 4,000 square foot home and flip it for millions in profit.  If so, that is not going to happen. 

So he will now be required to build the old house and add a plaque in front.  

51 thoughts on “San Fran Commission Requires Owner To Rebuild Historic Home That He Demolished Without Approval”

  1. Number One first and foremost during he escrow period the seller and the realtor should have made the limitation plain, simple and clear. Second was it damaged irreparably by some circumstance beyond the new owners control? Third and mos iimportant this highlights the common urban myth of land/structure ownership.

    One doesn’t buy and own a house or any piece of property in the USA. One purchases the ‘right’ to pay an annual rent known as property tax with no control over future changes such as assessments, and no rights to do much of anything except keep the governments property insured no matter what or the cause of the damage.

    But property owner? No such thing. Go on vacation, come back and find squatters have moved in …. tough.

    That includes Californians migrating into your area and devaluing the local property by changing the 5 to 10 to more acre property size limitations to ten houses per acre .

    1. Michael Aarethun – you do have some limited control. You can fight the appraisal value of your property (I have done this and won). You have the right to speak at each of the taxing authorities who will be taxing you on that appraisal and you can elect new people who will “see the light” of your way of thinking. You are not as powerless as you think. Oh, and you can run for each of those taxing boards yourself. 😉

  2. If I had that kind of money and six kids I would look for a property that was already the desired size and without restrictions. It’s important to preserve history and historic buildings do that. Actually, what’s important is the original Neutra design. If the house actually had been modified by subsequent owners, the building may actually end up being more like the original.

    There was a situation a few years ago where a man decided to thumb his nose at the local code enforcement and/or planning commission by building the house he wanted, where he wanted. It was demolished by the powers that be after going through “process”.

    And then there’s they guy who bought a house for a steal, probably intending to flip it or maybe stay there when he was in town. When he got the tax bill he wasn’t too happy. He hired a bulldozer, the house was gone, and the tax bill for undeveloped property was more to his liking.

    1. “It’s important to preserve history and historic buildings do that.”

      Hmm… I seem to remember a discussion about preserving history but some on this blog, perhaps including yourself, found nothing wrong with the vandalism that destroyed historic monuments on public property.

      1. I don’t like statues about war “heroes”. The confederate soldiers that the daughters of the south had constructed should all go in a museum where those who worship the old south can see them and so those who have problems with the old south don’t have to see them.

        1. I don’t like statues about war “heroes”. The confederate soldiers…

          Like I said, only history you approve of. What makes you so weak of mind that inanimate objects need to be locked away out of sight to make you comfortable?

        2. Betty, what a self centered way of thinking. You feel what you “like” should exist and what you don’t “like” shouldn’t while the other 330 million should do your bidding.

          I assume you will pay for the museum space.

  3. Our right to own property exceeds the government’s right to “regulate” or “preserve” it. IF: the government thinks that some home is a historical monumnent or something then they buy it from the owner and preserve it as such. They have no right to tell me to keep my house looking like Montechello. I can tear down my house. The need for a permit is to govern some regulation of the removal of debris. This government needs to have someone burn down their house of government in revenge.

  4. He violated the law.

    His mistake was not being politically connected. You see if you can cross that threshold from average citizen into the political class, laws become a bit more of a suggestion and less of a demand. Hell, if you play your cards right, you can have the full weight and force of our premier law enforcement agency sheltering your lawlessness.

  5. 1300 Square Feet is pitifully small. Then, take a swimming puddle and put it in the house somewhere? What would be left? There has to be room for negotiation to keep the façade, perhaps, and allow significant interior redesign to gain living space-somehow. I don’t see how a “planning commission” can totally restrict private owners from doing something different with their private property. I mean if the City of San Francisco wants to control something, to provide a specified outcome, why don’t they just buy the property, and see to it themselves. I see a court case in the making.

    1. VeloMac – I owned a potentially historic property one time and the decision to make it historic hinged on the restrictions that would be put on the property if it were designated historic. There a ton of things you cannot do to a historic house or building. And a ton of things that you have to do to a historic house or building. However, at the time, there were tax benefits.

  6. Capitalism encourages risk taking. The risk taken frequently requires scams, violating laws, and trying not to get caught. It is often successful for the risk taker and a loss for everyone else.

  7. How dare he have any desires on what to do with his hard earned private property….shame, shame and more shame for not getting permission for every move he makes on his hard earned private property….shame again I say.

    1. This property came with specific restrictions which he agreed to upon signing. He violated those restrictions. That is, he broke the law.

      Got it now?

      1. Yes, and seller sold per those restrictions. If those restrictions were not in place then seller could have sold at a much higher price. Buyer had options to purchase other properties with larger buildable areas but tried to get cute and grab this one at a comparative discount with intention to build beyond the restrictions and hide behind permit to renovate hoping nobody would notice.

        1. Yes, very likely that there was intent. According to Zillow and Realtor.com buyer paid $1.7 million vs. $1.2 million in article. Very unlikely that buyer would shell out between $1.2 and $1.7 million without knowing about restrictions. I have purchased and effectively knocked down a house to build (saved some walls for tax and approval process reasons) and every step of the way (starting with purchase due diligence) was aware of restrictions i.e. setbacks, building height etc. Having been there, done that – I aint buying the ignorance argument.

          1. I aint buying the ignorance argument.

            Me either. But what do I know. Hillary has a private computer server in her home used for her government communications and more than half the country believes a potential leader of the free world did not violate the law. It’s become increasingly unclear what constitutes a violation of the law.

              1. Only in your mind;

                Well sure, since I use that instead of my heart regarding the law. Actually I have a rule of law obsession. More specifically, I have an obsession with holding ALL public servants to that rule of law. Give it a try. It is a painful but rewarding duty for all citizens.

      2. I did get the sarcasm…maybe you might get the greater point: who the hell gives the overlords the right to demand “specific restrictions,” upon use and disposal of PRIVATE PROPERTY?
        Got it now?

        1. Anonymous – the SC has given towns and cities the right to designate certain buildings as historic in nature, however, the owner has to agree or it has take it by eminent domain.

        2. I did get the sarcasm…maybe you might get the greater point: who the hell gives the overlords the right to demand “specific restrictions,” upon use and disposal of PRIVATE PROPERTY?
          Got it now?

          Then you won’t mind if I build a lead smelter next to your house?

          Real estate abuts common property resources, is appended to public works for reasons of public health, and it’s use has externalities. For these reasons, land use is regulated. Move to the countryside, and you’ll face fewer regulations (but you’ll still face building codes which incorporate specs on your wells, septic system, and leechfields.

          1. If one wants to save money, they can purchase or build a house next a lead smelter. You may not want to, but it gives you no right to dictate the private property uses of another. What is the lead smelter built rows of houses on its property for workers to live at a reduced rate to keep the smelter open longer during peak use?

            I could go on, but restrictions on private property use is a losing proposition in the end, no matter the short term gains promised by state overlords.

    2. I bet there were restrictions on what the owner could do with the property. If there are restrictions the owner would have been required to sign a document delineating the restrictions at or before the sale settlement.

      1. Consider the fact that such contruction on a building site probably requires building permits even in San Francisco. In most places that would involve detailed plans including electrical and plumbing. The article says “The planning department gave him a permit to renovate the house” without mention of the details so I wonder what is missing or who screwed up?

          1. One could also say he paid someone off. Generally at least from what I have seen the inspectors inspect each time certain tasks are completed so false plans alone shouldn’t have worked.

            1. Allan – you have to call the inspectors out. If they thought they were looking at a new build, that would be different than a renovation.

              1. Paul, I think you are right but it might depend on the building inspector and local codes. In any event he broke the law and has to pay. The question is what do the regulations say.

                1. The regulations say you cannot tear down an historically protected building. New owner got cute and fashioned himself as the smartest man in the room and got caught.

          2. More plausible is that he presented expansive renovation plans (saved garage walls) as if there were no historical restrictions and that might have slipped by the city in the short term. Then when neighbor brought this to attention of city they later realized the attempted circumvention of the historical restrictions and cracked down on the huckster.

            1. In some jurisdictions, a “renovation” only requires that one wall somewhere in the building be retained. But using that loophole requires entirely ignoring the “Historic” designation in this case.

  8. In the video they use the term “affordable” Re. San Francisco real estate. Reminds me of the pathetic and disturbing oxymoronic phrase “mid east peace process.”

  9. I do not see how the commission can force a person to engage in speech by compelling the erection of a sign describing a property.

        1. Get off the free speech bandwagon. This has nothing to do with free speech. This has to do with following society’s rules, speed limits, keeping your yard clean, adjacent property values, lots of sorts of societal values. He blew it. He tried to pull a Trump and take on City Hall to get what he wanted. Ya needs mo money to do that.

          1. “Get off the free speech”

            Issac, Darren had a point: “I do not see how the commission can force a person to engage in speech by compelling” To which David responded “He violated the law.”

            Violating the law does not remove a persons right of free speech no matter what your brain tells you. The man did something wrong. He was punished. The only question is whether the commission has that right to compell the specified actions based on the local laws, rules and regulations. They might or they might not but David’s comment was wrong and you certainly don’t understand anything that requires complex thought.

            1. An example long fostered by Bacon Boys Kind is the mandatory enforced by jail and fines requirement to sign up ‘voluntarily’ for military conscription which excludes half the population for sexist reasons. That’s just the prep phrase during which the other half of the population is offered the enticements without complying.

              Then upon activation upon threat of arrest, incarceration and fines required and compelled to take and then sign agreement with an illegal and false oath under penalty of the same threats which are historically easily carried out. aka involuntary volunteering

              And thus the law remains to this day and is required on reaching 18 years of age to get ‘college money’ and ‘qualify for a government job.’

              Think not? Think the draft was abolished after Vietnam? Then you qualify for that group of with the intellectual status of Bacon Boy.

              1. Michael, I am not absolutely sure what you are trying to say. It wasn’t totally clear. I think you were saying that men on reaching the age of 18 must register for the draft. There was a bill that didn’t pass that would have mandated women to register as well.

    1. Like the judge who recently sentenced a poacher to watch “Bambi” once a month for a year, a cruel and unusual punishment. 🙂

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