The Loop

Historic Sharp Park's fate hangs in the balance

December 14, 2011

For scores of folks in and around San Francisco, a man named Ed Lee is now the most important golfer in the world.

Lee is the mayor of San Francisco, said to play the game. But over the next 10 days, unless he makes the right call, many golfers in the Bay Area will likely lose a course they love to play, a course that has been open since 1932, a municipal course that starkly defies many of the negative and clichéd stereotypes those who dislike golf love to perpetuate. The muny is accessible and inexpensive, enjoyed by people of various collars and colors.

Environmental opponents of Sharp Park golf course in Pacifica., Calif. -- in the name of saving an imperiled reptile and an amphibian that, according to other smart folks, with a bit of work, can happily coexist with the Alister Mackenzie design -- have been trying for a couple of years to shut it down. On Tuesday they got as close as they have come to getting that done.


Photo by Bill Fields

The board of supervisors in San Francisco, which controls Sharp Park even though it is located in suburban Pacifica, voted 6-5 to transfer management of Sharp Park to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The ordinance doesn't stipulate that the course definitely would be closed, but that is scant encouragement to those who play approximately 50,000 rounds a year at Sharp Park and tireless advocates who want to preserve the golf ground shaped by one of the sport's most significant architects.

The National Park Service, of which the GGNRA is a part, has already said, in writing, it doesn't want to be in the golf business.

Because eight votes were needed to thwart a potential veto, Lee can -- and should -- intercede to halt the legislation. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday, Lee "has indicated he does not support the legislation." Let's hope the newspaper is correct, and that Lee, "known as a problem solver and solution finder," according to San Francisco Public Golf Alliance co-founder Bo Links, will live up to his reputation.

If Lee doesn't overturn the ordinance -- which San Francisco native Ken Venturi called "mean-spirited" in a passionate letter to Lee on Dec. 11 -- he will be ignoring plenty of evidence that he ought to.

Pacifica and San Mateo County officials very much want Sharp Park to stay open as a municipal golf course and have been working hard with San Francisco to obtain control of the course and manage it. As Congresswoman Jackie Speir wrote in a Oct. 7 letter to Lee, they are "negotiations that may result in golf course revenues and philanthropic contributions being able to restore the habitat of the threatened [California red-legged] frog and endangered [San Francisco garter] snake."

Said Links: "Are there philanthropic resources that will step forward to help save the golf course? That is the question everybody should be asking. I'm confident those resources will emerge and we will solve this problem."

A Lee veto would allow some time for philanthropists to step forward, for a sound Sharp Park restoration plan -- that not only improves the course, which needs a makeover, but that also strengthens species habitat -- to be hammered out.

The ardent pro-golf folks acknowledge there is work to be done in the latter area. But to say that the golf course has been recklessly endangering the frog and the snake is also not true.

As part of the ongoing legal battle over Sharp Park, in a Nov. 29 ruling denying an preliminary injunction requesting measures (to stop mowing and pumping) that would have effectively shut down the course, federal judge Susan Illston wrote that "experts for both sides agree that the overall Sharp Park frog population has increased during the last 20 years." She also wrote, "the only evidence plaintiffs provide that take [killing] is occurring with respect to the use of these vehicles [golf carts or mowers] was a single snake that died six years ago."

If the case -- a separate front from the transfer vote by the board of supervisors -- goes to trial next July, those trying to save Sharp Park will argue that it is only because of the golf course that those species are there anyway. In urging a veto, Links wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to Lee that "they are both freshwater creatures and could not have survived in the brackish pre-golf property."

Maybe that was something that San Francisco's Park, Recreation and Open Space committee members took under consideration when they previously voted 14-1 to keep 18 holes at Sharp Park. That one-sided support was followed by a unanimous vote by the Recreation and Parks Commission.

In a Nov. 22 policy report about Sharp Park's future, a task force with San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) pointed out the complexities of the site's future management in regard to flooding, wildlife and golf. But it was against the ordinance that eventually passed 6-5, saying "this legislation is contrary to the spirit of city contracting laws, and is against the will of the Recreation and Park Commission."

When considering a veto, Lee will have all that background at his disposal. Plus these words from Venturi, the most famous golfer to come out of a Bay Area muny, who in his letter to Lee, reminded him about the 2012 U.S. Open being held at San Francisco's Olympic Club.

"It would be a tragedy -- and a terrible public statement by the City to the international golf world -- if San Francisco were to host one of the world's two most important golf tournaments, while being in the process of destroying Alister Mackenzie's legacy just 10 miles away," Venturi wrote. "Please don't let that happen."

Lee's veto, however, wouldn't really be about public relations or being nice to a long-gone architect, however great his legacy. More than anything, it would say common sense hasn't gone out of style.

-- Bill Fields

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