Bleeding Green

Forget about Sharp Park’s endangered frogs and snakes. The real problem with the golf course is its enormous cost to the city.

The issue is the big projects the city has to undertake at Sharp Park. Start with the seawall. Built over the course of about a decade beginning in 1941, the wall today is a large, earthen structure, girded on the beach side with stone riprap, which spans 3,200 feet of Sharp Park's western border. According to a 2009 report by Arup engineering consultants for the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the seawall has suffered two serious failures since then: In 1958, waves overtopped the structure and left most of the golf course underwater, and in 1983 the wall breached, allowing incoming tides to carry sand onto Sharp Park's lawns. Along with these incidents, the wall has been subject — like other seaside structures in Pacifica — to the steady, undermining effects of sea-level rise and erosion. The Arup report found that up to 300 feet of beach has been lost since the golf course was constructed.

The report also found that the seawall has deteriorated since its last renovation in 1989, and that a "high risk" exists that portions of it could collapse in the face of sea-level rise or storms. To bring the entire structure up to snuff would cost $12 to $14 million; more focused repairs, aimed only at the wall's weakest section, would require $6 to $7 million. The consultants recommended the cheaper option.

To some outside observers, even these hefty sums underestimate the real cost of maintaining the Sharp Park seawall over the coming decades. One of them is Bob Battalio, a Pacifica resident and senior engineer at Philip Williams & Associates, a San Francisco hydrology firm that performs environmental and technical studies for municipalities. In April 2009, Battalio wrote to the Board of Supervisors, predicting that $32 million was a realistic price for a "well-engineered" stone seawall that would adequately minimize the risk of flooding. "If you really want to hold the line there, and prevent coastal erosion from coming past the existing body, I think that's a very expensive proposition," he tells SF Weekly, noting that underinvesting in the wall now would only defer future expenses from additional upgrades and repairs. "If they don't put enough money in now, there may be a perception that it's not that expensive. But ultimately it will be."

The California red-legged frog requires a natural freshwater habitat, like the one at Sharp Park.
Frank Gaglione
The California red-legged frog requires a natural freshwater habitat, like the one at Sharp Park.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi says past estimates of the full cost of keeping Sharp Park open were “very incomplete.”
Frank Gaglione
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi says past estimates of the full cost of keeping Sharp Park open were “very incomplete.”

Along with the seawall and the needed renovations on the golf course itself, the third main cost-driver at Sharp Park is the city's share of a joint recycled-water project with Pacifica's North Coast County Water District. According to the terms of a 2004 agreement negotiated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the city will pay a sum toward the project proportional to the share of water from the new system that Sharp Park will use. In 2004, the golf course was estimated to use about 74 percent of the water from the project.

How much does that work out to? According to federal records on projects receiving American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds, the recycled-water project will cost $8.8 million, with $2.2 million in stimulus money to offset local government's share of the price tag. According to PUC spokesman Tyrone Jue, San Francisco's share of the remaining cost is $5.1 million.

The siphoning of federal stimulus funds toward a golf course so steeped in controversy has provoked some outcry in itself. Last December, Sharp Park made its debut on the national political stage — as an example of government waste. In a "Stimulus Checkup" report devoted to ridiculing uses of the $787 billion secured by President Barack Obama for economic recovery projects, McCain and Coburn spotlighted the Sharp Park recycled-water project. "While the golf course was designed by Alister MacKenzie, best known for designing Augusta National, Sharp Park has not followed in Augusta's successful footsteps," the Republican senators opined.

In addition to the $5.1 million for recycled water and at least $6 million for seawall repairs at Sharp Park, an additional expense must be accounted for: legal and consulting fees associated with obtaining permits for any renovations from the gauntlet of state and federal regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over the property. Sharp's seaside location and resident endangered species make it subject to environmental review under both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). There's currently no way of estimating those costs, but coastal developers typically pay at least a few hundred thousand dollars for required studies and permits under the two laws.

Last fall, the city's Recreation and Park Commission adopted a plan it hoped would balance the needs of snakes, frogs, and golfers at Sharp Park: a renovation of the course, keeping all 18 holes intact but moving one and adjusting others to create more natural habitat. The price tag on this option was set at somewhere between $5.9 and $11.3 million, depending on how much excavated land could be reused at the property.

In the months since this approach became city policy, however, federal authorities say nothing has been brought to them for official approval. "I know they have a couple of ideas, but they haven't aired anything under CEQA or NEPA for us to review," says Chris Nagano, chief of the endangered-species division at the Sacramento field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The reality is there's nothing for us to look at." (Rec and Park spokesman Elton Pon says department officials are still exploring how to finance renovations at Sharp Park, and hope to have an environmental review of its natural-habitat areas completed during the summer of 2011.)

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