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"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."
That's not to say that an honest financial assessment of Sharp Park Golf Course means that the public, or elected officials, won't choose to keep it around. To Neilson, who was out for an afternoon round at Sharp Park recently, the millions of dollars the city must pour into the golf course would be worth it. "There's no cheap way out of this dilemma," he says. "There's no way to do this without spending money." Even if it costs $17 million or more? Neilson smiles and shakes his head. "We're in America," he says. "Money is Jesus. Get down on your knees and pray."