Klein: Sharp Park puts focus on muni courses

Sharp Park in San Francisco

David Holland, like many Bay Area golfers, loves Sharp Park Golf Course. On May 19, he plans to be at the legendary course to celebrate the 80th anniversary of this Alister MacKenzie design. However, when most golfers return to work the next day, they’ll leave the course behind them.

For Holland, 63, Sharp Park has become his work – maybe even his calling. He tried retiring after working for the U.S. Forest Service for 34 years – the last four as national recreation, heritage and wilderness director. Then he went to work for San Mateo County, spending six years as parks director before becoming assistant county manager last year. Now much of his time is spent studying Sharp Park’s finances and operations to determine whether San Mateo should consider taking over the course on a day-to-day basis. The beleaguered course, owned and managed by San Francisco even though it sits outside of city limits, is at the center of a legal and political fight for its life.

Many of those who know Sharp Park consider it a national treasure. Holland counts himself among those who would welcome the chance to place it on firm footing – but only if it makes good business sense for the county.

“I’d love to see Sharp Park completely restored,” Holland said.

On May 19 at Sharp Park, Holland will join more than 100 people at a fundraiser sponsored by the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance. They’ll gather along the Pacific Coast, 14 miles southwest of downtown San Francisco, to honor their course and to express their hopes for the future. But their joy at having access to this links-style layout has been tempered by an intense legal, political and economic skirmish.

Golf is under siege here in Pacifica. Amid budget deficits, public scrutiny and popular mistrust of government, it’s no surprise that publicly subsidized recreation draws taxpayer ire. Add the intensely engaged politics of an activist ecological community that’s targeting a supposedly elitist sport and you have even more ingredients for a public brouhaha.

The land comprising the golf course and surrounding park, 417 acres in all, were gifted to San Francisco in 1917 by the estate of Honora Sharp with the specification that the grounds be used as a public park or playground. MacKenzie’s course, opened in 1932, was widely lauded for its windswept holes through coastal dunes and alongside low-lying marshes.

The exposure to the Pacific Ocean ultimately proved overwhelming. In the 1940s, an unreinforced soil embankment was erected along the coast to reduce erosion and seal off the golf course from tidal incursions. The most exposed coastal holes were then closed and new ones built further inland.

Additional renovation work took place in the 1950s to make room for the extension of the Pacific Coast Highway. Today, the 6,299-yard, par-72 layout sports a dozen original MacKenzie holes. It also features an attractive, hacienda-style clubhouse that houses a comfortable restaurant and has banquet room for up to 100 guests. Six holes wrap around a large wetlands called Laguna Salada. It used to be a brackish, saltwater marsh but became freshwater wetlands after the sea wall was built.

Laguna Salada and an adjoining drainage basin on the south side of the park called Horse Stable Pond are the focal points of an environmental controversy that is being litigated in federal court and threatens the existence of the golf course. Some ecologists, worried about two protected species – the threatened California red-legged frog and the endangered San Francisco garter snake – argue that golf course operations adversely affect Laguna Salada and are destroying the habitat.

Acting under a legal principle called private attorney general theory, the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity has joined with Wild Equity Institute and the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Sierra Club to try to shut down the golf course. The case, originally scheduled for trial in July, has been stayed by U.S. District Judge Susan Illston pending a biological determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether a suitable maintenance plan can be established to preserve the habitat of the two species and allow the golf course to continue.

Arthur Feinstein, chairman of the Sierra Club chapter that’s a party to the suit, said, “We’re not out to kill the golf course but to save the species. If they can figure it out, we’d be willing to go along with it.” He cautioned, however, that “our position, based on science, is that there is no management that can solve that problem.”

Sharp Park is one of only three 18-hole courses, along with three nine-hole courses, operated by the city. With the Bay Area notoriously underserved by affordable public golf, Sharp Park registers 50,000-plus rounds per year, charging green fees of $37 (weekday) to $41 (weekend) to walk. Opponents of the golf course have argued that for years the course has lost money. The city Recreation and Parks Department and supporters of public golf claim otherwise.

Holland believes the course can make money and be environmentally sustainable. While supporters of the park are developing a site remediation plan to enhance the habitat of the two species in question, Holland and the Board of Supervisors are trying to determine whether it makes sense to operate the course with the city through a municipal enterprise fund. In December, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee vetoed a measure that would have expedited the closure of Sharp Park by including the land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area run by the National Park Service, which has no interest in operating a golf course.

Holland figures that if San Francisco doesn’t want the golf course, San Mateo County does. And on May 19, he’ll be joined by many others who hope that something can be worked out to keep golf at Sharp Park for another 80 years.

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