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Golfers 1, Enviros 0: Judge Denies Temporary Halt at Sharp Park

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that environmentalists had not met their burden in proof when requesting that continued golf course activities at Sharp Park Golf Course would harm federally protected species. The trial will resume in June.

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.

For more on the ongoing controversy over Sharp Park Golf Course, head to our topic page and subscribe to the RSS feed for updates.

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Bhatman December 01, 2011 at 05:47 PM
The 1-0 score analogy is wrong. This ruling is not a big deal legally, a better analogy would be the "bus of jurisprudence" remains a local instead of an express. Eventually it will pull into the station.
Peter Loeb December 01, 2011 at 08:07 PM
It's very informative to read the judge's decision. In brief, the judge pointed out how the plaintiffs blew it in making their legal argument. Then the judge says, "It is uncontroverted that the local Frog population is increasing" and "The only evidence that plaintiffs provide that take is occurring with respect to the use of [lawn mowers and golf carts] was a single Snake that died six years ago. However, since that time, defendants have implemented the 2009 Compliance Plan, which self-imposes protective regulations regarding use of the vehicles for the sake of the animals" and "More importantly, there have been no reported sightings of the Snake in Sharp Park in 3 years." The judge concludes, "When there is a significant question as to whether a listed species even exists in an area, the plaintiffs have a high burden of showing that the species will be irreparably harmed absent an injunction." This suggests that the plaintiffs will have a difficult time making their case to Judge Illston next June.
Arnita December 02, 2011 at 03:08 AM
I hope golfers don’t celebrate too soon. San Francisco Supervisor Avalos is now proposing to shut down golf and turn Sharp Park over to the GGNRA, who certainly won’t keep golf no matter what the courts decide. If you want to keep Sharp Park golf and the other recreation, call and oppose Avalos’ ordinance. Call Supervisors Avalos (415) 554-6975, Supervisor Mar (415) 554-7410 and Supervisor Elsbernd (415) 554-6516 before the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing on Monday, Dec 5 at 10 am or go speak at the meeting. The GGNRA (aka, Golden Gate Recreation Area) also has a proposed general management plan for the next 20 years that barely mentions recreation and calls for controlled access and aggressive administration. All people that use the berm and beach should also be frightened since the GGNRA plans to manage most of the GGNRA land as a bird and native plant sanctuaries instead of for the mandated recreation. Don’t be surprised if the GGNRA closes off the beach and only allows people along the berm. You should definitely submit a public comment opposing their plan and insist the plan specifically provide for the legislatively mandated public use and enjoyment and much needed open space for urban recreation. You can review the plan and comment before Dec. 9 at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=303&projectID=15075&documentID=43168
Steve Sinai December 02, 2011 at 03:34 AM
Where can I get one of those frog hats?
Bhatman December 02, 2011 at 11:00 PM
The only reason beach and berm users should be "frightened" is if a storm surge wipes out the berm and floods the neighborhood. Other then that - watch out for those plants! p.s... next time be up front about your off-leash dog agenda, ok?
Bhatman December 02, 2011 at 11:10 PM
I wonder why San Francisco expects the public and the courts to rely on their effort of hiring a supposed- herpatologist and created a supposed-snake recovery plan which will cost of millions of tax dollars but are now arguing that "there have been no reported sightings of the Snake in Sharp Park in 3 years"? Shouldn't they pin their hopes of saving the golf course on that fact?

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