Sharp Park case moves forward

 Posted by on April 27, 2012
Apr 272012
 

A lawsuit challenging operations at a golf course owned by the city of San Francisco will proceed, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled yesterday (Wild Equity Institute v. City and County of San Francisco, 11-958 SI, N.D. Cal.).

Illston, who had previously denied a request for an injunction to halt park activities, stayed the case while the city consults with the Fish and Wildlife Service on activities that could harm the two federally listed species that occupy the park — the threatened California red-legged frog and endangered San Francisco garter snake.

Illston said there is some question as to whether the frog population is growing, as asserted by the city.

New evidence and recent FWS activity have called into question the growth of the frog population at Sharp Park. In its denial of a preliminary injunction, the Court relied heavily on the City’s ability to carefully move the stranded egg masses. See Order at 14-15. The Court noted that during the winter of 2010-11, the City found 159 egg masses; it then requested and received permission to move 128 of them. See Order at 8 (citing Campo Dep. at 104)). However, the FWS has since revoked the City’s authorization to move the stranded egg masses. See Crystal Decl., Ex. 1 (Dec. 8, 2001 FWS letter). It is unclear what effect the revocation will have on the Frog’s population.

Plaintiffs have also pointed to testimony that calls into question whether the Frog population is increasing. They cite defendants’ expert Lisa Wayne, Sharp Park’s Natural Areas Program Manager, who testified at deposition that she could not say whether the population trend of the Frog at Sharp Park was increasing or decreasing, and that while the 2010-2011 rainy season was the highest she had seen, the egg mass population fluctuates from year to year. Wayne Dep. at 249:15-250:9. Plaintiffs also provide a new declaration from their expert, Dr. Marc Hayes, one of the scientists to originally petition the FWS to list the Frog. See Emery Decl., Ex. B (Hayes Rep. III)). Dr. Hayes now states that rather than increasing, recent analysis shows that egg mass numbers at Horse Stable Pond are merely stable. Id. at ¶ 62. The Court finds that the City has not established that there is no genuine issue as to the growth of the Frog population.

Illston did not rule on the merits of the plaintiffs’ complaint. Instead, she found that they had standing to pursue their claim and stayed the matter until October, by which time consultation with FWS should be complete.

The environmental groups’ press release is pasted below the links.

Here’s the release issued by the environmental groups:

For Immediate Release, April 26, 2012

Contact: Brent Plater, Wild Equity Institute, (415) 572-6989
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 669-7357
Arthur Feinstein, Sierra Club, (415) 680-0643
Neal Desai, National Parks Conservation Association, (510) 368-0845

Judge Cites Evidence Sharp Park Golf Course Is Harming Endangered Frogs,
Awaits U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Input

Order Discusses Harm, Population Impacts to Red-legged Frogs

SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. District Judge Susan Illston today rejected the City of San Francisco’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by six conservation organizations over the ongoing killing of red-legged frogs at Sharp Park Golf Course. Explaining that new evidence and recent Fish and Wildlife Service restrictions have called into question San Francisco Park Department claims that the frog population at Sharp Park is growing, the court ordered the city to obtain authorization from the Fish and Wildlife Service for golf course activities that could harm endangered species. The judge ruled conservation groups have legal standing to bring the case, but stayed the lawsuit until October, when San Francisco could face a court trial over Endangered Species Act violations if it does not obtain a federal permit.

“The court’s ruling lays bare the damage golf course activities such as draining water from wetlands exacts on two of the Bay Area’s most imperiled animals,” said Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute. “We expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to require that the golf course cease killing endangered species and propose a comprehensive mitigation and restoration plan as part of any permit.”

The Park Department argued that draining aquatic feeding and breeding habitats for the California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake at Sharp Park Golf Course somehow benefits the species. In rejecting these assertions, the court cited contradictory testimony from the city’s own experts and staff that the golf course activities harm and kill protected wildlife.

“The endangered species permit process will weigh the biological impacts of excessive water pumping and habitat destruction to protect one golf course,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The permit should force the Park Department to change golf course operations to actually protect imperiled frogs and snakes.”

The Park Department has killed endangered frogs six of the past 10 winters, and its so-called “compliance plan” for endangered species has been a complete failure. In February, the department was caught again killing threatened red-legged frogs at the course, draining Sharp Park’s wetlands in a failed attempt to prevent frogs from breeding in their historic ponds.

The Washington, D.C. public-interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal represents the coalition of conservation groups in the lawsuit.

Background

The Fish and Wildlife Service last year notified the golf course that it was specifically prohibited from handling or moving frog egg masses at Sharp Park and must obtain a permit for any golf course activities affecting protected species. The Service also denied the Park Department’s request to drain wetlands and dredge lagoons at Sharp Park, cynically referred to by the city as “habitat management and scientific studies.” Water pumping, dredging and other activities harmful to frogs can only occur if the department obtains a federal “incidental take” permit with an accompanying conservation plan.

The city-owned golf course at 400-acre Sharp Park in Pacifica is plagued by crumbling infrastructure, annual flooding problems and ongoing environmental violations. More than three-dozen San Francisco community, recreation, environmental and social-justice groups have called for closing the golf course and creating a more sustainable public park at Sharp Park. A 2011 peer-reviewed scientific study by independent scientists and coastal experts concluded that the most cost-effective option for Sharp Park is to remove the golf course and restore the functions of the original natural ecosystem, which will also provide the most benefit to endangered species.

The Park Department has refused to consider this option, and is instead pursuing a plan that would evict endangered species from the site and bail out the golf course’s financial problems with tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation in December 2011 to prevent this from happening, but Mayor Ed Lee, an avid golfer, vetoed the legislation. Further action by the board is expected this year.

Author info

Steve Davies is editor and publisher of Endangered Species & Wetlands Report, which he started in 1995. Davies began his professional journalism career as a copy editor for the weekly Gazette Newspapers in Gaithersburg, Md., before becoming a reporter there. He then moved to Carlisle, Pa., covering Cumberland County government for the daily Sentinel. He returned to the Washington area to cover Congress and federal regulatory agencies for a series of trade newsletters before starting his own publication, which is an independent venture. Click LinkedIn for more detail.