Letter: Consider restoring Sharp Park


Posted by on Tue, April 28, 2009

Normal winter rains flood many areas of Sharp Park, and the Golf Course's attempts to drain the water kills California red-legged frogs, the largest frog in the West.
Rendering of possible restoration of Sharp Park Golf Course

In his April 27 opinion piece on Coastsider, Ken King makes several false statements about Sharp Park, the restoration proposal for the land, and the bill introduced by Supervisor Mirkarimi to kick-start that proposal.

Every environmentalist has demanded that scientific studies be conducted before any decision about Sharp Park’s future is made, including decisions about Sharp Park’s illicitly built and crumbling sea wall.  The Mirkarimi bill expressly requires, based on the best scientific evidence available, that a restoration study be conducted along with alternatives that retain or redesign the golf course.  The bill will force these studies to be integrated into the EIR process referenced by Mr. King, but it will modify that process to ensure that restoration alternatives are considered along with existing alternatives that keep things largely as they are.  Mr. King has steadfastly opposed restoration studies, because for political and personal reasons he doesn’t want the status quo to change.

But the status quo cannot be maintained.  The golf course loses too much money, it causes too much harm to the environment, and it exposes the surrounding community to flooding risks that will be exacerbated by climate change.  In the face of these liabilities, subsidizing golf in San Mateo County for as little as $12 a round while San Francisco makes drastic cuts to basic city services simply cannot continue.

Mr. King proposes a simplistic solution: raise prices.  But if Sharp Park raises prices, fewer golfers will play there and the course’s deficit will increase.  The Bay Area already supplies 6 million more rounds of golf than golfers demand, driving golf prices downward precisely when Mr. King claims we should raise them.  Moreover, the National Golf Foundation found that golfers at Sharp Park have very little loyalty to the course and play there primarily because it is cheap. Because of this, San Francisco’s Budget Analyst concluded that Sharp Park cannot reduce its deficit by simply raising prices: golfers will just take their game elsewhere.  

And Sharp Park’s deficit is substantial. Sharp Park has lost between $30,000 and $300,000 a year for the past four fiscal years from the golf fund alone. San Francisco’s other golf courses suffer for it, because they must subsidize Sharp Park’s losses, robbing other courses of needed maintenance. But that isn’t all it costs San Francisco to operate Sharp Park: Sharp Park also draws down the capital fund, the open space fund, and the natural areas program fund. In 2007, the Recreation and Parks Department concluded that these expenses will not be offset by revenue from Sharp Park, collectively resulting in millions of dollars in losses by 2013.

This may be chump change compared to San Francisco’s multi-billion dollar budget, but if this hemorrhaging were halted San Francisco would not need to make proposed cuts to City services, services that are already distributed inequitably. These funds could keep our community centers open after school so kids will have a safe place to stay until their parents return from work.. They could even be used to improve San Francisco’s other golf courses that are suffering from deferred maintenance, or improve our playgrounds and dog parks to make them safe.

On top of all this, the scientific evidence makes it abundantly clear that Sharp Park golf course is the cause of harm to endangered species, not the cure for it.  The San Francisco garter snake, arguably the world’s most beautiful and imperiled serpent, was considered "abundant" at Sharp Park in surveys conducted in the 1940’s—before the sea wall was built—but has declined precipitously in surveys ever since.  In 2006 a US Fish and Wildlife Service report concluded that a San Francisco garter snake was killed by a lawn mower at Sharp Park, and in 2008 only one snake was seen at Sharp Park all year.  The golf course has yet to implement a single mitigation measure for the snake.  

Also in 2008—three years after mitigation measures for take of the California red-legged were reluctantly implemented by the golf course—biological investigators found "several" desiccated California red-legged frog egg masses at Sharp Park.  This year investigators concluded that, subsequent to a $240,000 repair of the golf course’s pump house, entrainment of the frog’s egg masses and tadpoles can occur, sending them out to sea.

Environmentalists have been consistent in their message: use the best available science to consider restoration alternatives at Sharp Park before political deals are cut about the future of the land.  With this information we can select the best choice for everyone at Sharp Park, including golfers, endangered species, and other recreational users of Sharp Park.  The Mirkarimi bill will kick-start this process, and deserves support because of it.

Nice pictures, especially the second one that shows an aquatic theme park confined on the western side by the despised artificial berm. Carl May’s earlier post to my letter questioned the meaning of “restoration”, and rightly so. Mr. Plater has not forthrightly revealed just what his view of restoration entails, but a bounded wetlands in no way resembles a restored version of Sharp Park, and he knows that. No doubt Mr. Plater will denounce his rendering as mere artist’s license and try to move past this petty issue, but it’s not petty at all and is very much relevant to our discussion.

Mr. Plater, not surprisingly, argues like a lawyer on contradictory sides of a point and pays no heed to his obvious lack of consistency. And the point is . . . ? To win his argument, of course. Let’s look at some of his claims to see if he’s being consistent and if he brings any light to the subject, his subject, protecting the species of concern through his MONUMENTAL EFFORT to restore Sharp Park.

Plater writes, “The Mirkarimi bill expressly requires, based on the best scientific evidence available, that a restoration study be conducted along with alternatives that retain or redesign the golf course.” This argument shirks a valid EIR process before any decision is made about handing Sharp Park to GGNRA. It conflates Mirkarimi and Plater’s laughable term, “restoration study” - which hasn’t begun, but will be concluded by September 30, 2009 - with an EIR. There is hardly time to prepare a checklist, let alone conduct a scientific study.

That doesn’t deter Mr. Plater from conflating further, “The bill will force these studies to be integrated into the EIR process”. These studies Plater baptizes as scientific because they’re “based on the best scientific information available”. There is a tautology here he most likely is aware of, calling it science by saying it will eventually be merged with a real scientific study - the EIR - but will “ensure that the restoration alternatives are included”. Plainly, Plater doesn’t understand EIRs if he wrote that because a valid EIR considers all of the alternatives requested. But Mr. Plater did write that. Is he just trying to baffle us with . . . ?

After a gratuitous personal swipe where Plater claims knowledge of my personal motives, he dives back into his argument that the golf course costs SF too much. His figures are unverifiable and have been contradicted publicly by his fellow citizens of the Parks and Recreation Golf Course Task Force, but he blithely uses the same figures undeterred. (Because of Mr. Plater’s great passion for his mission, he may not be one who should be questioning other’s motives.)

Accepting for the sake of argument, and averaging out his claim of losses from $30K to $300K for the last four years, let’s take $100K/year as average, a figure Ross Mirkarimi thinks is right, btw, hence his “chump change” remark. About 50K rounds are played at SP per year, so a $2.00 increase would end such a deficit and not affect attendance as Plater strains credibility claiming. Heck, raise it $5.00 - do you think that will deter many $12/round players? Movie tickets have gone up a lot faster. Raise it $10 and then transfer funds to those shortchanged city programs Mr. Plater calls out. Some of the lowest economic-rung folks might drop off, but if privatization was on the table, it would have have erased this tier anyway. Plater’s logic that any raise at all would drive all players away is absurd on its face. If Sharp Park remains the comparative bargain it is relative to local courses, it will make out fine.

How about a more serious argument then? Sharp Park golfers are disloyal because a national survey proves it. Of course, the methodology for this study is not presented, so it is basically hearsay evidence because its method cannot be analyzed - most survey questionnaires are poorly constructed and unscientific. I wonder how “evidence” of that nature stands up when Mr. Plater tries using it in court? Does it goes unchallenged without anyone objecting? We can seriously doubt this.

Lawyer Plater goes on to cite evidence of the golf course’s impact on the species dating back to the beginning and continuing through recent affronts. I agree that the environment and species are worse off for Sharp Park’s conversion to a golf course in the 1930s, and later efforts to buffer it from the sea. I would refrain from arguing technical points about recent “takes” and errors of omission or commission by golf course employees because human error is all too common.

All of that said, nothing Mr. Plater argues above rises to a valid scientific justification of his restoration project, whatever he means by that. There is a complete absence of scientific process telling us if abandoning Sharp Park to GGNRA, an organization whose mission is neither to operate nor decommission golf courses, is wise. 

Supervisor Mirkarimi and Mr. Plater’s quest to restore Sharp Park is the moral and legal equivalent of faith-based healing applied to an ecosystem and its endangered inhabitants. Will the snakes and frogs persist and thrive in the future because of the proposed restoration effort? The principle promoters hide behind a legislative phrase, “restoration study”, that weakly claims to embrace all of the best science while it eschews scientific scrutiny by the haste of its convenient assemblage.

Firstly, Sharp Park Golf Course is the precise reason that wildlife is attracted to this locale. They find the lagoons — now clogged and naturalized — an ideal habitat.

Second, the course used to serve as a detention pond for flood waters, and an appropriate mechanism for releasing flood waters to the ocean. Now, with silted lagoons and waterways, the lagoon footprint is larger and needs to be returned to its original or near-original state.

Both of these issues are at the heart of the issue.

Golf courses throughout the world co-exist with nature, serve as ideal habitats with natural areas, restored natural areas and wetlands. In fact, golf courses provide an ideal filtration field for urban run-off to reach before entering wetlands, let alone the ocean.

Golf courses in the U.S. — 17,000 — represent the largest acreage of sustainable wetlands in our country. More than 50% of all golf course acreage is not in managed turf. A high percentage of this acreage is maintained in wetlands, both natural and restored.

Sharp is an ideal model for a golf course to be restored to provide both flood water holding, as well as open space to foster wildlife and habitat.

To say the courses are losing money is misleading. One only needs to look at the study by the City of SF to see the reasons they lose money, and remedies for stopping this bleeding. One part of the solution is the restoration of Sharp and the return of the acreage to a managed system of lagoons and waterways.

FL Richardson

Today the Government Audit and Oversight Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 in favor of a restoration planning process at Sharp Park.

Big surprise since Ross switched it to his own committee at the last moment to pass it on the full Board of Supervisors.

There’s a new video about Sharp Park here:

It’s 10 minutes—and gets into the details of why the golf course is not viable.