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Partial Attorneys Fees Awarded In Sharp Park Golf Course Lawsuit

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A federal judge in San Francisco has awarded $386,000 in attorneys' fees and costs to six environmental groups that filed a lawsuit seeking to protect two imperiled species at the Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica.

The 18-hole public golf course is owned and operated by the city of San Francisco.

The 2011 lawsuit contended that pumping and mowing at the course hurt the California red-legged frog, which is federally listed as a threatened species, and the San Francisco garter snake, an endangered species.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said in a ruling Monday that even though she eventually dismissed the lawsuit, it speeded up the city's process of obtaining permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for incidental harm, legally known as "taking," of the two species.

"Plaintiffs' lawsuit spurred defendants into obtaining the necessary authorization for their take of frogs and snakes," Illston wrote.

The wildlife service issued the authorization in a 2012 biological opinion, which also set 31 conditions that the city of San Francisco must follow in operating the golf course.

The agency estimated that maintenance activities at the site would destroy 130 frog egg masses, kill or injure two snakes and one frog and harass all frogs and snakes in the area each year. But it concluded the operations "were not likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of the two species.

After the biological opinion was issued, Illston dismissed the lawsuit as moot in December 2012.

The attorneys' fee award levied against the city was one-fourth of the amount of what the environmental groups, which included the Wild Equity Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, had sought.

The award included $327,000 in fees—or 25 percent of the slightly more than $1.3 million requested—and $59,000 in compensation for costs.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act provides that attorney fees can be ordered in citizen lawsuits when a judge determines an award is appropriate.

Illston said the partial award was appropriate because she plaintiffs achieved "some success," in that the requirements are now mandatory rather than voluntary and were imposed more quickly than might have been the case without the lawsuit.

But "little else has substantively changed in the management of Sharp Park," the judge noted.

San Francisco city attorney's office spokesman Gabriel Zitrin said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the fee award.

Wild Equity Institute attorney Brent Plater said, "Sharp Park Golf Course illegally kills endangered species, and San Francisco taxpayers continue to foot the bill for this environmental crime."

Plater said his group hopes the city will reconsider the use of the site and either remove the golf course or keep only one nine-hole course, to "create a public park everybody could enjoy, including the wildlife."

In addition to the institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, the plaintiff groups included the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation and the San Mateo County-based Sequoia Audubon Society.

NPCA Pacific Region Associate Director Neal Desai said, "We're moving the conservation ball forward. We're continuing the campaign to advocate that more changes are needed."

The environmental groups are appealing the dismissal of the lawsuit to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the appeal was put on hold until Illston issued the attorneys' fee decision, so that any appeal from that ruling could be handled at the same time.

The lawsuit claimed that pumping water out of the park kills frog egg masses by exposing them to air and causing them to dry up, and that grass mowers and motorized golf carts run over snakes and frogs.

The San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, a citizens' group, joined the case to help the city defend against the lawsuit.

Alliance co-founder Richard Harris said, "The judge's ruling gave a very substantial haircut to their (fee) request."

Harris said, "The golf course is being enjoyed and admired and is maintained in an appropriate fashion for both the golf and the species."

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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