Debating the fate of Sharp Park Golf Course

By on Sun, April 26, 2009


Some people are trying to get Sharp Park Golf Course restored to a natural state, and others say that this is neither desirable nor practical.

There’s an interesting debate at the Examiner’s web site, and you can read the full text of the arguments there.

Sharp Park is a peculiar piece of land: a public golf course in Pacifica owned by the city of San Francisco. The San Francisco supervisors will hold a committee hearing on converting Sharp Park into a nature preserve on Thursday, April 30 at 1pm.

I first heard Brent Plater make his case for restoring the course on KQED:

The story of Sharp Park Golf Course, located in Pacifica but owned and operated by San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, is one of benevolence, hubris, and tragedy. In 1918, wealthy benefactors who required the land be used as a "public park, or public playground" deeded Sharp Park to San Francisco.   Unfortunately, Sharp Park’s vibrant lagoon—with its abundant wildlife, coastal access, and beautiful vistas—was violently reshaped in the 1930s by Alister MacKenzie, a landscape architect who spent fourteen months filling Sharp Park’s wetlands to create an 18-hole golf course along the coast.  But he failed to tame Sharp Park’s natural ecology: the course’s ceremonial opening day was delayed twice because of wet playing conditions; coastal storms destroyed all seven of the beach-side holes a few years later; and a separate storm brought sea water so close to the clubhouse that the City illicitly built a crude sea wall to protect the course’s remains.  The sea wall gambit backfired: it cut-off Sharp Park’s natural water outlets, and now the golf course floods almost every year—with fresh water—threatening homes in the surrounding communities.

For this taxpayers take a net loss of nearly $300,000 each year on Sharp Park Golf Course.  A 2007 Recreation and Park Department analysis concludes that under current conditions the golf course will cost San Francisco taxpayers millions more by 2013.  But even with this massive subsidy golfers are leaving the sport, and more specifically leaving Sharp Park.  Rounds played at Sharp Park have declined nearly 40% since 2000, and it operates at 45% of capacity.

A new planning process for Sharp Park was recently proposed by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors: partner with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to transform Sharp Park from an environmentally destructive and budget-breaking golf course into a community-centered model for urban development, natural flood control, outdoor recreation, and endangered species recovery.

Meanwhile, Examiner public policy blogger Bruce Balshone says that this could be counterproductive.

If the course is removed and made into a biological reserve it will undercut the work of the environmental community in Pacifica and the development pressures that have been a constant in Pacifica will only increase – imperiling such properties as the old quarry site which developers have twice attempted pave over.

It is this dichotomy which is of the most significance. If the current council fails, a new more pro-development council may emerge. This would be an immense set back for the proponents of a biological preserve. Despite the fact that the City and County of San Francisco owns the golf course property, the City of Pacifica, according to State land use law will have the authority to determine its land use and  zoning.

In addition, the property carries with it a deed restriction included by the wealthy benefactors who gave the land to San Francisco which requires the land be used as a "public park, or public playground" and, if not kept as a public park or playground, the property could revert back to the heirs of the original donors. While San Francisco activists insist that an ecological reserve will suffice in meeting that requirement, it is likely that a court may decide that issue and it may or may not work out in the way activists foresee.

Yet another rationale for the destruction of the course is that the course consistently loses money, as much as $300,000 annually. But Pacifica city leaders and course administrators have publicly stated that the course is self-sustaining and much of the debt load is due to administrative costs and diversion of funds from the course into the revenue stream for the entire Parks & Recreation Department. As a stand-alone, many believe the course could maintain itself.

Sharp Park can become a model for the nation, in outdoor science and “place based” nature education, climate change research and appropriate recreation.  When I say “appropriate” recreation, I specifically mean recreation deemed by the best science available,  to be consistent with habitat and species recovery.  The San Francisco garter snake, arguably North America’s most imperiled serpent- i.e. in danger of becoming extinct, is a unique sub species that occurs ONLY in San Mateo County.  (We will not include the single individual snake found in North Santa Cruz as a viable population.)

The San Francisco Bay area has one of the most educated populations in the ENTIRE WORLD.  If we, in the heart of a technology and nature (the Northern California Coast) mecca, can allow another species to go extinct, how can we hope for better of those people in Central or South America, or Africa or Asia??Leading by example is the only way to go.
Providing the next generation (children of the Bay Area), with an opportunity to participate in the recovery of an extraordinarily rare wetland could be a key to saving OUR species- Homo sapiens sapiens.  By many accounts California has already lost MORE THAN 90% of our wetlands. 
While it is easy to empathize with the 1-2% of Pacifican’s who regularly use the SP golf course, it is even easier to empathize with the thousands upon thousands of school aged children who are without basic access to place-based outdoor science opportunities.

After more than 70 years, surely many are emotionally attached to this golf course. But alas, sentimentality is not the same motive for wanting to provide the next generation with access to place based science education that can positively shape them for our collective futures.  Both the social and ecological challenges that loom closer to each of us as each day fades into the next, are only going to have solutions if we give the youth access to dynamic learning opportunities.  Sharp Park can become a model for sustainable recreation and endangered species recovery in California and beyond.

Alyssa Byrd

The financial excuse that San Francisco loses money and has to carry Sharp Park is disingenuous by intention and deliberately misleading. San Francisco Supervisor Mirkarimi, the legislation’s sponsor, has himself said he doubts the accuracy of the figures cited by proponents and thinks that whatever gap there may be is mere “chump change”. Given Sharp Park has the lowest greens’ fees among San Francisco’s golf courses, or even in the surrounding area, a modest hike disposes of that argument. But why do that when it serves as an excuse for those intent on accomplishing their own estimable goals?

Goal one of the Center for Biological Diversity and affiliated groups is to restore the area to its original pristine condition for all of the stated purposes outlined above by Mr. Plater. Definitely laudable. But take a moment and consider his description of how the entire area was filled in then later buffered by the addition of an enormous seawall - a 20-foot high berm stretching along the entire width of the golf course at least a half mile long. To “restore” the area would involve removing thousands, maybe tens of thousands of semi trucks full of fill, this in an area containing endangered species. Who, we might wonder, would be the permitting authority for this activity?

There’s more. Laguna Salada, the fresh water lagoon snaking around the edge of the golf course receives the runoff from the entire golf course when it’s watered or raining. The berm between the lagoon and ocean keeps it all from draining, allowing only excess overflow to reach the ocean. This freshwater environment provides breeding habitat for the Red legged frog that in turn provides a food source for the San Francisco garter snake. The restoration folks want the berm breached in order to take us back to the pre-1930s when the lagoon was a brackish, read that as saline, estuary. With global warming raising sea levels three feet by the end of the century, if not faster, there go the frogs and the snakes that rely on them.

Something seems strangely amiss here with the bio fans pushing so hard in face of the problems and contradictions inherent in this enterprise. Maybe restoration would be a net benefit to the species of concern regardless, but how could we determine that beforehand? The answer of course is to do an Environmental Impact Report that studies all of the possible alternatives, including doing nothing at all, then make the best decision. It so happens that San Francisco’s Planning Department is preparing to do just that, but this process would take one or two years to conduct, and our biological friends are in too much of a hurry and too wowed by their own Big Idea to want to hear anything scientific that might contradict their own romantic and well-intentioned project. There’s momentum now, so keep on pushing and worry about the details after they accomplish their mission.

Mr. Plater is an environmental lawyer and college professor with an enviable record suing entities on behalf of threatened species. Supervisor Mirkarimi is looking for a way out of continued nuisance lawsuits from people like Mr. Plater, so one can hardly fault him for trying to remove San Francisco from potential legal liability for Federal violations. However, it’s plain to see that neither side is so much concerned about the species in question as with getting what they want. None of this ought to be considered without condoning and paying for a thorough and complete EIR that will shed light on whether restoration in any form at all will benefit the animals and improve the overall environment or not.

We know one thing, and that is the frogs and snakes coexisted at Sharp Park for the last seventy+ years. We also know that critter protection improved substantially in recent years as the golf course was enjoined to change its practices. Ending the golf course or substantially altering it as restorationists propose may be a great idea, or it could prove hellish for the animals - remember what they say about the road to hell? The point is that we don’t know, and neither do they.

The problem in a nutshell is that there’s no science underlying any of this, only out there as an eventual goal, the science education center, etc. Should these folks succeed in pulling this off without an EIR, I hope that there will still be something left to study there one day.