A decision by Palo Alto residents in November to make a portion of Byxbee Park available for a new compost plant is forcing city officials to walk a fine line between two competing goals -- respecting the will of the voters and honoring its commitment to reopen the park to the public.
In its first vote on the deeply polarizing topic since Election Day, the City Council decided on Monday, Feb. 6, to tread cautiously and directed staff and consultants to create a timeline for evaluating the proposed facility. The council also authorized a separate contract for work pertaining to capping of the Byxbee Park landfill and agreed to delay the capping of a 51-acre portion of the site for a year.
The council voted 8-0, with Gail Price absent, to proceed with the planning process for a new waste plant because of the passage Measure E, which allows the city to use 10 acres of previously dedicated parkland for a such a facility. The measure passed with 64 percent of the vote.
Though the measure did not authorize the construction a waste-to-energy plant, it addressed one of the greatest stumbling blocks to construction of a local composting facility -- availability of land.
Related story: Plan for a Baylands waste facility surges ahead (Nov. 8, 2011)
The debate over a new waste plant was prompted by the recent closure of the city's landfill, which contains a composting operation. The question of whether the city should build a new compost facility in the Baylands or ship its compost to Gilroy has split the city's environmental community and the council, with some arguing that the city should keep composting local and others maintaining that public parkland is a terrible site for a waste facility. Most of the landfill has already been capped and reopened to the public, but a 51-acre portion of Byxbee Park remains closed.
But while Measure E concerns itself exclusively with a 10-acre site next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, the measure's passage is forcing the council to revise its plans for a much larger portion of Byxbee Park. On Monday, the council acceded to a staff recommendation to postpone the capping of a 51-acre portion of the park -- a major phase in the city's recent reopening of the park to the public. This section contains most of the 10-acre site that Measure E undedicated.
Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel recommended delaying the capping of the 51-acre site while the city further evaluates its options for the new plant. If the city caps the site as planned but then determines that it should proceed with the new plant, it would have to undo some of its work.
"Once you cap something and then come back and try to create a level pad on a 10-acre site, you'll be disrupting the cap you just put in there and there would be increased costs to create that pad and recreate the cap," Bobel said.
The council agreed to postpone the capping process, though council members Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Sid Espinosa -- all of whom had opposed Measure E -- expressed concern about the delay. Schmid recommended charging the city's Refuse Fund rent for the 51-acre site until the park is reopened to the public. But while Holman supported this idea, the rest of the council rejected it.
"Whatever we do tonight is going to impact 51 acres," Holman said. "That's not what E was about."
"How do you honor both the outcome of Measure E and honor our parkland dedication rules and laws?" she asked. "Measure E talked about 10 acres but we're really talking about impacting 51 acres because we're not going to close the 51 acres if we don't cap it as we had previously planned.
"That's a real struggle for me how to honor both sides of that?"
Schmid said the city is facing a dilemma between the benefits of opening up parkland and pursuing a green-energy solution to the city's composting conundrum. But Councilman Larry Klein, who supported the measure, said the council has an obligation to follow the voters' mandate and proceed with analysis of the new plant.
The council should not be doing "anything that tips the scales one way or another," Klein said. He opposed Schmid's proposal, saying it would merely shift funds from one city fund to another and in the process raise customers' utility bills. He said Schmid and Holman were trying to find arguments that "poke holes in Measure E" despite the voters' overwhelming passage of the measure.
"The people have spoken," Klein said. "It's our job as their servants to implement their will."
While the council agreed to delay the capping process, it also approved a $213,113 contract with the firm Golder Associates for the design and environmental work relating to this project. It also approved a $29,700 contract with the firm Alternative Resources Inc., to develop a process and timeline for considering the new waste-to-energy facility. Bobel said the schedule should be ready within the next four months.
City Manager James Keene said that while staff has no desire to delay the reopening of the parkland any more than necessary, to proceed with the capping of the landfill would run counter to the will of the voters.
"To not delay in many ways is a refutation of the vote for Measure E," Keene said. "We have got to keep the options open to explore what can happen on the site."