San Francisco resident Michael Emery recalls the moment of surprise when his soft-spoken and youngest son Edward, then 12 years old, announced that he wanted a hunter’s license.
“We’re not gun folks,” Emery said of his family. “We didn’t have any experience with hunting.”
So Edward took to the Internet and quickly discovered the Pacific Rod and Gun Club, which has resided at Lake Merced for the past 80 years and offers the only public shooting range in San Francisco.
“It really became his second home,” Michael Emery said. “He would go out on weekends, shoot a few rounds, pick up shells for the old guys. He was literally hanging around with guys older than his grandfather.”
It’s now Edward’s third year of shooting at the club, and it could be his last.
The Pacific Rod and Gun Club, believed to be the only outdoor shooting range in a major metropolitan area in the U.S., has been told by its landlord, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, that the club must vacate when its lease expires on Dec. 31.
The future of the Pacific Rod and Gun Club has been uncertain for years. The SFPUC took over managing the club’s lease in 2012 from the Recreation and Park Department, with the intent to clean the contaminated area around the lake.
That means the club must vacate the 14-acre site so the utilities commission can comply with an order by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to clean contaminants along the lake by 2016, SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue said.
In 2012, the club was evicted by the SFPUC following contentions between the utilities commission and club over a new lease and who should clean up the site, but a settlement agreement was reached that allows the club to stay on the property until this year.
But the club’s president, Patrick Gilligan, remains optimistic that the club can find a way to stay open.
“We’ve been hoping and trying our best to work something out with The City that would allow us to get a new lease or remain on the site,” Gilligan said.
Jue said part of what needs to be cleaned up along the lake is the result of lead pellets and clay pigeons the club used prior to 1994, when it switched to nontoxic steel shots and biodegradable targets, more environmentally friendly alternatives. The $17 million project is expected to begin in early 2015.
“We’ve been completely upfront over the past several years that the site needs to be cleaned up,” Jue said. “There have been reports, studies, and patterns that show where the most contaminated sites are. They align with the target ranges.”
However, Gilligan said the 2016 deadline could be overturned and contends the utilities commission can do its cleanup work without closing the club.
“We think there’s a massively reduced scope of work they could do,” he said. “There’s not only cheaper and less disruptive alternatives that are available, they are doing the most aggressive form of cleanup for recreational use.”
The site that holds the gun club has about 11 usable acres and 14 acres overall, making it the watershed’s largest area of flat land outside TPC Harding Park, The City’s premier golf course. The club’s shooting facilities boast six skeet fields, three trap fields, five-stand sporting clays, a duck tower and an indoor small-bore rifle range.
In addition, the area includes a clubhouse and banquet facility, a caretaker house, restrooms and parking.
A 2011 report “The Lake Merced Watershed” highlighted the benefits and challenges of hosting the only trap-and-skeet shooting range within 40 miles.
“While the Pacific Rod & Gun Club has been a recreational asset over its many years at the lake, its presence has raised concerns over the years related to a number of issues,” the report states.
Concerns in the report include “noise associated with the firing ranges; the compatibility of firearms use in what is now a populated urban area; the commitment of such a large area of usable land to such a limited use; and the potential for contamination related to historic use of lead shot at the ranges.”
Tim Colen, a neighborhood activist who founded and chaired the now-defunct Lake Merced Task Force, sees both sides of the issue. More people than those who use the gun club should be able to enjoy the site, Colen said, but he doesn’t believe that developing the spot is a priority for The City.
“I’ve worked long and hard with a lot of other neighborhood activists to get that land put into play for something that serves a much wider group of folks than just one narrow group, a shooting club,” Colen said. “This is nothing against them, they’re good people.”
He added: “The reality is that in spite of it all, [The City’s] language of how important a resource it is, it’s not a priority.” “You have a group on it now that says, ‘let’s share the land.’ I think you have to listen to them,” Colen said of the gun club.
Jue, the utilities spokesman, said The City will receive suggestions for future use of the site after it’s cleaned up. The gun club can then submit a proposal to return, he said.
“They should have an opportunity to compete and show that their use of the site is the best for public use,” Jue said of the gun club. “They can put forward their best proposal like everyone else.”
Supervisor Norman Yee, whose district includes Lake Merced, said he has met with members of the gun club to discuss possible options for its future after the cleanup.
“The door is not necessarily closed to them,” Yee said.
Gillian said the club is still “actively pursuing” ways to “coexist and proactively approach this” with The City before their lease expires.
He emphasized that the club produces revenue for The City by giving half of the gross profits from renting out the clubhouse, as well as through rent. Gillian estimates the the club annually pays The City between $80,000 and $95,000.
“We are one of the few, if not the only, profitable recreation facilities [in The City],” Gilligan said. “I don’t know what else could go on that site that’s of recreational use that could generate income like that.”
Edward Emery, now 15, is a prime example of how the club’s clientele has shifted to a younger demographic in recent years.
“There is a movement over the last three years of younger people, a broader diversity of people participating and using the club,” Gilligan said.
He said he hopes that the people who support the club — new and veteran participants — will let their voices will be heard in the next few months.
“We’ve come a long way,” Gilligan said. “We’re hoping we can keep it going for the next generation.”
For Michael and Edward Emery, visiting the club together on weekends provides not only time father-son bonding, but a glimpse into the history of San Francisco.
“It’s an amazing spot, and for me it’s a look at another time in San Francisco,” Michael Emery said. “The guys that I see at the club, almost every one of them has a connection to The City.”