A federal judge has prevented environmentalists from curbing golf at Sharp Park, at least for now.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge ruled that a preliminary injunction sought by several environmental organizations to stop golfing on a large part of the because of alleged damage to endangered and threatened species was unnecessary.
Judge Illston wrote, in a 15-page ruling, that the plaintiffs—the Wild Equity Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Surfrider Foundation, Sequoia Audubon and Sierra Club—failed to meet their burden in “showing irreparable harm to the California Red-Legged Frog or the San Francisco Garter Snake,” the two species at the center of this controversy spanning many years.
This decision by Judge Illston is only the latest development in a that has been ongoing since March 2011.
Plaintiffs indicated then that they intended to sue unless the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which managed the course (it is owned by San Francisco) met three conditions.
First, that the department adopt a complete habitat restoration agenda for Sharp Park west of Highway 1 that does not include golf, similar to what is laid out in a in Jan. 2011 that was touted by environmentalists as the only “peer-reviewed” study to-date.
Second, that the department develops a habitat protection process for the land that abides by federal Endangered Species Act laws. However, there is a seemingly insurmountable stumbling block in the way of the department doing this, said Neal Desai, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, in March.
Because frogs, snakes and frog egg masses are still damaged regularly on the course, the city would have to get an Incidental Take Permit (ITP), which would allow for the killing of endangered and threatened species during normal golf course management activity while a protection process is being implemented, in order to continue to allow golf there.
"Getting a permit to kill species for golf is an absurd thing for the city to do," said Desai. "Not to mention that it's highly unlikely [the federal government would allow it]."
Sharp Park Golf Course regularly floods and frogs, snakes and egg masses are damaged when course managers pump the water out. If the city cannot get an ITP as part of its habitat protection process, no pumping will be allowed and golfing on a large swath of the course would be impossible.
Third, environmentalists want a cessation to endangered and threatened species deaths at Sharp Park. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs' complain that currently the city and county of San Francisco are unlawfully killing frogs and snakes.
Environmental organizations then filed a motion in September for a temporary injunction on golf-course activities that are hurting endangered species. They asked that the injunction last until the lawsuit is finished or the Recreation and Parks Department adopts an approved “habitat conservation plan” and obtains legal permits under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal represents the plaintiffs.
Some environmentalists took Tuesdays rejection of their request for an injunction in stride and believe that Judge Illston will make a decision in their favor in June, when the trial will resume.
“The judge did not think that immediate restrictions on the golf course are necessary and intends to address these matters at trial,” said Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute and legal counsel on the suit. “We are excited to go to trial and expect the judge to craft appropriate relief once she has heard the merits of the case.”
Still, the plaintiffs remained firm in their message that golf course activities at Sharp Park continue to harm federal protected species.
“It’s shameful that San Francisco intends to continue draining and mowing sensitive wetlands for another winter—you’d think the ‘green city’ would do right by its namesake endangered species,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because San Francisco garter snake numbers are so dangerously low, golf-course mismanagement that kills a single snake threatens the species as a whole.”
Lawyers representing the city of San Francisco continued to discount environmentalists’ claims, however.
"Plaintiffs' position that the Endangered Species Act is violated by the death of a single or even a few frog eggs out of the hundreds of thousands or more laid each year at Sharp is simply untenable in the face of this biological reality," said environmental attorney Chris Carr of Morrison & Foerster, the firm representing the city.
The Sharp Park golf Course faces threats on more than one front, however.
San Francisco County Supervisor John Avalos originated in September and has been promoting an ordinance that would sign the golf course land, owned and operated by San Francisco, over to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The federal parks organization would likely not keep golf at Sharp Park.
Although the ordinance appeared, for a time, to have stalled in the legislative process, it is scheduled for a public hearing on Dec. 5 at San Francisco City Hall, marking forward movement.
“The Avalos Ordinance would direct the Rec & Park Dept. to offer to close Sharp Park Golf Course and enter exclusive negotiations with the GGNRA to take over Sharp Park. The GGNRA has already announced it will not operate a golf course at Sharp,” the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, an advocacy group that has played a major role in the controversy over the course announced on its website. “Now is the time for golfers and their friends and families to come to the aid of affordable public golf and the legacy of Alister MacKenzie (who designed the course) at Sharp Park. Bring your friends, family, and foursomes. Be early.”
The public hearing, before the City Operations & Neighborhood Services Committee, will happen at 10 a.m. on Dec. 5 in Room 250 of San Francisco City Hall.
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