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.

Environmental activists, angry Republican senators, mazes of federal and state bureaucracy: The obstacles arrayed against Sharp Park are diverse indeed. With so many factions drawing a bead on the golf course, what recourse does it have for a viable future? As it turns out, there is one approach that advocates say would cost the city next to nothing. But it would mean turning Sharp Park over to the federal government — and giving up on golf for good.

Coastal wilderness and wetlands restoration — from the dairy ranches of Marin County to San Francisco's Crissy Field — has been a principal goal of the Park Service in recent years, and Sharp Park seems like a promising candidate for such an overhaul, at least from the point of view of federal officials. The city could, in theory, try to hand over the entire property to the National Park Service, which already manages the adjacent Mori Point preserve as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Would the feds be interested?

"We're open," GGNRA spokeswoman Chris Powell says. "We have said all along that if the city were to discontinue golf and were interested in having it restored to a natural area, then we would be interested in talking to the city." Powell also said the GGNRA would potentially be willing to undertake this restoration from start to finish on its own, removing virtually all financial responsibility from San Francisco. Under this scenario, Sharp Park could be united with Mori Point to form an unbroken wildlife area. "We do have endangered-species habitat next door, and we think it would be important to have contiguous habitat," she says.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a golf enthusiast who led the charge to renovate Harding Park, doesn't like the idea of giving Sharp Park to the federal government. "We've been given a tremendous resource, and to just give it away, I think, would be a waste," he says. Instead, he thinks the golf course can and should stay — provided the city can find other government agencies to help pay the bills.

"San Francisco should not have to bear 100 percent of the costs associated with everything that needs to happen down there," Elsbernd says. In particular, he says, government agencies in San Mateo County should capitalize on the course's popularity among their constituents — "Sharp Park is wildly popular south of the border, if not north of the border" between San Francisco and San Mateo counties, he notes wryly — to raise money for capital improvements. "It's going to depend on what the sources of funds are." Sharp Park should stay, he says, "if they're not taking away from hiring a rec director or gardener in our neighborhood parks."

But with local governments across the country groaning under the recession, contributions from other cities might not come easily. Julie Lancelle, a Pacifica City Council member, is an outspoken proponent of keeping 18 holes of golf at Sharp Park. "It's a beautiful, mature public golf course that's been in the center of our town for as long as Pacifica's been a city," she says. Her ardor wanes, however, when the subject of helping to pay for capital improvements comes up. "I don't know how much revenue we could bring to that," she says, noting that Pacifica's $28 million general fund is facing a five-year projected deficit of several million dollars. "But we could certainly bring support and some level of experience."

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, whose district includes Pacifica, has already submitted initial requests for federal funding to support Sharp Park. In two separate proposals to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, she has asked for $5 million to help support restoration of snake habitat on parts of the course, and $500,000 to pay for more studies of the seawall. "These are requests, not promises," aide Brian Perkins says in an interview, noting that it can take up to eight years to process such proposals at the federal level. He adds that Speier supports the idea of balancing golf and wild habitat on the property: "She thinks that both are legitimate uses of public lands, and that both can be accomplished. Good evidence suggests that's true."

Sharp Park's predicament sounds many familiar themes to those who have watched the politics of California's coastal development for the past 40 years. This is yet another charming and historically significant seaside establishment that has to deal with increasingly stringent state and federal environmental regulations — as well as new social views on how the shoreline should be used — under which it could never have been built in the first place.

At Sharp Park, as elsewhere, the cost of complying is high, and some say the public deserves a fuller debate over the course's future that doesn't hew to the drawn battle lines of "snakes versus golf."

"To be distilled into that kind of characterization, to me that misses the whole thrust of the argument to begin with," Mirkarimi says. Miller says the December plan from Rec and Park "wasn't based on science. It was based on the presumption that the golf course had to stay no matter what."

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