It is difficult to imagine any other city engaging in the kind of hard-fought battle that has characterized the debate over Palo Alto's Measure E, an initiative that does nothing more than reserve 10 acres next to the sewage treatment plant currently designated as parkland as a possible site for a state-of-the-art composting facility.
Promoted by environmental activists who see an exciting possibility for the city to turn yard and food waste and the sludge from the sewage-treatment plant into compost and energy, Measure E asks voters to approve a land-use change to permit the acreage to be considered for an anaerobic digester facility if it proves feasible and desirable after further study.
Opponents of the measure, consisting of equally passionate and respected environmentalists, believe that parkland should never be re-purposed and that the misguided supporters are infatuated with an idea that is neither clearly environmentally superior nor financially viable.
So divided is the local environmental community that the Sierra Club decided not to take a position on the measure. Acterra and the League of Women Voters support the measure, while Committee for Green Foothills and the Audubon Society oppose it. Former and present elected officials have lined up on both sides of the issue.
It is important for voters to realize that Measure E is not a vote on what should be done with the affected 10 acres. In spite of what each side says, passage of Measure E should not be seen as an endorsement of moving ahead with a composting facility, nor should defeat of it be seen as an outright rejection of the idea.
There is a classic horse-and-cart problem with the issue, creating an ambiguous situation regardless of the outcome of the vote on Measure E.
On the one hand, it can be argued that Measure E is premature since there are so many unknowns regarding the feasibility and risks of building a state-of-the-art anaerobic digester facility that can handle both our sewage sludge and yard and food waste. Why ask voters to approve undedicating 10 acres of parkland until the operational, financial and environmental details are fully known?
On the other hand, what's the point of spending time and money to further study the appealing concept if the availability of the land is uncertain?
Our preference would have been to wait until the City Council made a policy decision on the merits and viability of anaerobic digestion and then take the proposal to the voters in a measure that would include both approval of the facility and the undedication of the needed 10 acres.
But proponents thought otherwise, and now they have put an intriguing but still-speculative idea at risk by forcing an early vote over the land-use issue.
For voters adamant about preserving parkland no matter the merits of alternative uses, Measure E is an easy "no" vote.
But we don't hold that view. Previous land-use decisions should not preclude the opportunity for new and innovative ideas to be considered, and the requirement of a public vote is ample protection. We don't believe a facility on these 10 acres would impinge upon enjoyment of Byxbee Park and the baylands.
As technically complex as the process of converting waste into benefits like electricity and compost are, there is a reasonable chance that with further study an exciting, low-risk and financially and environmentally beneficial plan can be developed. It is not unreasonable to first determine if the needed land can be made available.
Most Palo Altans are unaware that currently sewage sludge is being incinerated in the baylands, emitting undesirable pollution with no beneficial energy production. The regional facility is considering replacing this aging plant with a wet anaerobic-digestion system, a well-established process through which electricity is generated using the methane gas created by sewage sludge decomposing in a large air-sealed container.
Measure E advocates argue that food waste can easily be added to this process, and hope that yard trimmings can too, possibly utilizing what is known as "dry" anaerobic digestion, where both energy and compost are the by-products.
Dry anaerobic-digestion systems are new; San Jose now has such a facility under construction and it is scheduled to open in 2014 and will process 80,000 tons of waste a year and generate enough electricity to power at least 1,200 homes.
With so much uncertainty, why not simply vote down Measure E and wait until a plan is fully developed, and then return to the voters for approval of the land use change?
Because we fear that the City Council may interpret a "no" vote as a vote against any further exploration of the anaerobic-digester concept. This would be no more appropriate than interpreting passage of Measure E as a vote to proceed full speed ahead.
But by casting a "yes" vote, Palo Alto residents can indicate their interest in continued exploration of innovative new technologies to convert an important part of our waste stream into environmental and financial benefits.