Ninth Circuit dismissed lawsuit and Superior Court upheld renovation permits, ending four-year case; MoFo acted as pro bono counsel to San Francisco Public Golf Alliance throughout the suit
SAN FRANCISCO (June 10, 2015) – Following dismissal at the Ninth Circuit of a lawsuit by anti-golf groups, and a San Francisco Superior Court ruling upholding the environmental review for work permits, habitat restoration and course renovations are finally underway at historic Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, Calif. This opens a new chapter in a four-year drama in which Morrison & Foerster has represented the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, which intervened in both cases on the side of the City and County of San Francisco in order to specifically represent the interests of golfers in protecting this unique and affordable public golf course.
Planned upgrades to the iconic course, one of the few public courses designed by legendary golf architect Alister MacKenzie (1870-1934), comprise enhancements to both the golf course and the adjacent wetlands, which are home to the endangered San Francisco garter snake and California red-legged frog.
After anti-golf groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in 2011, alleging that course operations harmed the two animals in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act (Wild Equity Institute, et. al v. City and County of San Francisco), the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance (SFPGA) successfully petitioned the U.S. District Court to intervene as co-defendant, arguing that the hugely diverse community of golfers who used the Sharp Park course would otherwise be without a voice in the case. The Alliance, a 6,500-member group including both local duffers and golf architecture devotees from around the world, is devoted to preserving Alister MacKenzie’s public golf legacy at Sharp Park.
Morrison & Foerster partner Christopher Carr, chair of the firm’s Environment and Energy Group, represented the SFPGA pro bono for the duration of the lawsuit. Argument before the Ninth Circuit was handled by Joseph Palmore, co-chair of the firm’s Supreme Court and Appellate Group, while Mr. Carr supervised Environment and Energy associate Daniel Gershwin in briefing and arguing the environmental review case before the Superior Court.
“The environmental groups’ case has been heard, and rejected–by the city, county, state, and federal governments, not to mention the federal district court and superior court, both here in San Francisco,” Mr. Carr said. “Simply put, the plan for the course not only preserves a beautiful setting for golfers of all socioeconomic levels, but also enhances the habitat of the San Francisco garter snake and red-legged frog. The design of the course prevents seawater from inundating the wetlands near the course, which would in short order eliminate the frog and the animal that depends on it for food, the snake.”
Mr. Carr continued: “This is a common-sense result. Sharp Park was created by one of golf architecture’s Old Masters, and it serves everyone from high school teams to local citizens to pros to fundraising organizations, and more. It’s a landmark and a civic institution, and it’s also a safe haven for endangered species. We’re proud of the work we did on behalf of the SFPGA; the SFPGA folks and everyone else who worked on our side should be, as well. The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and their colleagues in the Department of Park and Recreation did a tremendous job.”
The California Coastal Commission has approved a plan for the golf course that includes building a new frog pond and moving a golf cart path away from wetland areas near the 14th hole. The course is already partly irrigated with recycled water, via the Pacifica Recycled Water Project. Major restoration work on the historic 18-hole course is planned, but still under environmental review.
Designated one of Golfweek’s “50 Best Municipal Courses,” Sharp Park opened in 1932 on land given to the city for public recreation. Its architect, Alister MacKenzie, is one of the acknowledged geniuses of golf course design, having also created Augusta National, home of the annual Masters Tournament, and the Cypress Point Club on the Monterey Peninsula, which features some of the most celebrated golf holes in the world.
Environmental groups sued San Francisco City and County in March 2011, alleging that normal activities and upkeep at the golf course harassed the snake and frog in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Carr became involved when the SFPGA joined the suit in June 2011, and the case has been a drumbeat of defeats and reversals for the anti-golf groups ever since. Later in 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston denied plaintiffs’ move for a preliminary injunction to shut down more than half the course, and subsequently stayed the litigation pending an opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the 2012 opinion failed to support the environmentalists’ claims that use of the course posed a danger to snake and frog species, the judge in December 2012 dismissed the case. The Ninth Circuit dismissed the plaintiffs’ appeals in March 2015. At the end of May, Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong held that the City had complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by adopting a Mitigated Negative Declaration, rather than preparing an Environmental Impact Report, for work to improve water pumping and worker safety at the golf course.