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Francis Martin III wants to make some changes inside Atkinson House, the 19th-century home he bought in a historic Russian Hill neighborhood in 2001 — raising a ceiling in the living room, revamping a fireplace, and other renovations. But San Francisco planning officials contend that historically significant woodwork inside would be lost, and are trying use a state law to force Martin through a potentially costly environmental review process. Martin says the city is trying to assume the role of a Big Brother-like interior decorator. He is suing the city over its interpretation of the California Environmental Quality Act, with his lawyer arguing that the city is trying “to intrude on people’s private lives and the insides of their homes.” In court briefs, Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass partner Jonathan Bass accuses the city of pursuing “a radical expansion of its authority under CEQA.” “Anyone who thinks that the imposition of CEQA obligations on any project is a matter of small consequence has never had the pleasure of being involved in one,” Bass writes. Lawyers say there’s little California case law to guide Martin v. City and County of San Franicsco, 03-417466, which is expected to head to a court trial in superior court today. Deputy City Attorney Sarah Owsowitz acknowledges this is the first time the city has subjected plans to alter only the interior of a single-family home to this level of environmental review. The city wants one of three environmental documents prepared: a negative declaration, a mitigated negative declaration or an environmental impact report. But Owsowitz insists the city’s not being radical, just applying the law to a rare situation — and guarding against potential litigation from preservationists and neighbors. “We have to do what the state tells us,” Owsowitz said. “If we didn’t, I’m not sure we wouldn’t hear from other parties.” As far as the city knows, she added, Martin is the first homeowner to ask to “substantially” alter an interior feature — in this case, woodwork designed by 19th-century architect Willis Polk — that is mentioned in a National Register of Historic Places description of the neighborhood. Most interest in historical renovation focuses on building exteriors, said Charles Chase, executive director of San Francisco Architectural Heritage, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Dealing with interiors is a delicate one,” he said. Preservationists want to see historic resources and communities preserved, but homeowners won’t want their houses labeled historic in the first place if they think they’ll be saddled with too many burdens, he added. From Martin’s point of view, preparation of a negative declaration or an environmental impact report could eat up time and money � and expose his plans to public scrutiny and comment. While the case is probably of interest to preservationists and homeowners, Chase said, it isn’t likely to carry widespread implications for either group in San Francisco. “This is a special case.” Owsowitz estimates the city could conceivably apply the same requirement and reasoning to fewer than 200 private historic homes. “Somebody would have to hunt to find another case where we would have to apply this,” she said. But Bass disagreed. “I think that’s a huge number,” he said. In Martin’s case, San Francisco officials are relying on California Public Resources Code § 21084.1. That provision says a project may have a significant effect on the environment if it can cause “substantial adverse change in the significance of an historical resource.” Bass is attacking the city’s reasoning on two grounds. He argues CEQA covers only discretionary decisions, and says the permit his client needs doesn’t fit that description. The city contends that all building permits in San Francisco are discretionary. But even if the permits are discretionary, the city is misapplying the law, Bass said. “They’re taking a very literal, and I think wrong, view of what the statute says,” Bass said. Nothing in CEQA suggests the city can make decisions about “some historically interesting living room that’s not open to the public,” he added. Owsowitz cites one California opinion, Citizens for Responsible Development v. City of West Hollywood, 39 Cal.App.4th 490. Plaintiffs alleged the city hadn’t conducted enough environmental review before allowing the rehab of two historic buildings, but the court of appeal sided with the city. The court remarked that proposed changes to the interiors in the case didn’t violate CEQA’s provision on historic resources. “The uncontradicted evidence in the record demonstrates that the interiors of these buildings are not significant,” the court wrote. That implies CEQA would have applied, Owsowitz argues in a brief, “had there been substantial evidence in the record regarding the significance of the interiors.” Bass contends that the city has no cases on point. CEQA has generated “scores” of decisions in the courts of appeal and the California Supreme Court, he argues, and “not a single one of them lends any support to the city’s legal position.”

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