Odd Twist in Sharp Park GC Controversy

Despite calling a lawsuit filed by an environmental group seeking to close Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, Calif., "excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary," and "grossly inefficient" and "unwarranted," a federal judge has ruled that the plaintiffs should be awarded legal fees. The order specifies that the amount - 25 percent of the requested $1.3 million - should be paid by the City and County of San Francisco.

On July 1, Federal Judge Susan Illston issued the order awarding $326,600 to the plaintiffs, Wild Equity Institute, Center for Biological Diversity. In December, 2012, Judge Illston dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs filed an appeal.

The legal skirmish began five years ago, when the Tucson-based environmental group claimed that the course should be closed to preserve the habitat of the federally-protected California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later concluded that golf at Sharp Park is not a likely threat to the survival of the two species.

The effort to close the Alister MacKenzie-designed course has been fought by an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance. In January 2012, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Northern California (GCSANC) recognized Robert D. "Bo" Links for his contributions to the game of golf, including his spearheading the task of keeping Sharp Park open.

In explaining her ruling in a nine-page written order, Judge Illston noted that "plaintiffs lost every single motion," including a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt golf operations. Nevertheless, she explained, the Endangered Species Act authorizes attorney-fee awards "whenever the court determines such award is appropriate." In this case, a fee award was "appropriate" because, the judge said, the lawsuit - which the plaintiffs filed in March 2011 - spurred the city to apply to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which in August 2012 issued an Incidental Take Statement sanctioning limited amounts of "take" at Sharp Park of the federally-protected California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake.

The plaintiffs' lead attorney Brent Plater took the occasion to renew his call for San Francisco to close the golf course and turn Sharp Park over to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for conversion to a wildlife sanctuary. Plater is also the executive director of Wild Equity and a former staff attorney for Center for Biological Diversity. "We look forward to working with the city to implement today's order and craft a new public park at Sharp Park," Plater said in a statement. If not, "depending on what the city does next it's possible that they could be involved in litigation for 10 years," he told SF Weekly.

Pacifica resident and Sharp Park women's club member Lisa Villasenor was not pleased with the order. "Sharp Park is a landmark which has for more than 80 years been a beloved, affordable public recreation resource for the region, with unanimous support from both the Pacifica City Council and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors," Villasenor said. "And it's an odd law, or an odd decision, or both, when the plaintiffs' lawsuit is dismissed and the judge finds their legal practices wasteful and says the suit did not change things much, yet still awards the plaintiffs any fees at all."

Clarence Bryant, a retired San Francisco aviation engineer, wondered why the plaintiffs were not required to pay the city for having to defend a lawsuit that was deemed 75-percent wasteful. "Where's the justice in requiring San Francisco taxpayers to pay the plaintiffs anything for bringing a lawsuit that the judge found to be mostly excessive and inefficient," Bryant asked.

"And now these profiteers are threatening to bring more wasteful lawsuits if people don't just knuckle under? People need to stand up against this kind of bullying." Bryant has been a Sharp Park regular since 1955, when he played the course in the inaugural tournament of the Western States Golf Association, one of the country's oldest and largest African-American golf societies.

Villasenor and Bryant are also members of the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, which has led the fight to save the popular public course. Attorney Chris Carr of the Morrison-Foerster law firm, which represented the alliance, voiced concern about the implications of the court's order. "While plaintiffs' exorbitant fee request was slapped down, the fact that the judge awarded any fees at all just shows how vulnerable to abuse the Endangered Species Act has become," Carr said.