News

Palo Alto ponders next steps for compost plant

Council has to weigh competing interests as it plans for waste facility in the Baylands

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."

Comments

Posted by Annoyed, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2012 at 9:31 am

The headline here reflects the problem with this issue -- the votes did NOT vote on measure E to "plan a waste facility", despite the best efforts of some Prop. E proponents to spin the results that way. The voters voted to "study" the question of whether or not this was a good idea. Far too many, including some of our City Council members and City staff members, indicate that they are not keeping an open mind, and instead see a "compost plant" as a foregone conclusion. Sadly, the PA Weekly also falls into this trap with its misleading headline, as it did with its endorsement of Prop. E

There will be lawsuits over this, and expect a years-long process with many arguments over the cost estimates, which will be underestimated by proponents wherever possible. Have we learned nothing from HSR? And in the meantime, the whole promised extension of Byxbee Park will be delayed, perhaps for years...


Posted by Parks, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

So all of a sudden, a majority of City Council members is locking up all 51 acres of the long-planned and promised Byxbee Park expansion and calling it "the will of the voters"? What a pile of compost!


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 7, 2012 at 9:47 am

We will soon be hearing from Cedric, Peter, Hilary and the rest of the pro-E contingent telling us that the vote was for a compost plant. Annoyed has it right--the vote was to undedicate the parkland and then decide. Regading Klein's comment ("The people have spoken," Klein said. "It's our job as their servants to implement their will.")--then he should get busy with the study. Of course if this turns out bad, Klein will not take any responsibility--he will claim that he was misled. Too bad Gennady Sheynar has contributed to the mistake by writing a very shoddy story.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 7, 2012 at 10:25 am

"It also approved a $29,700 contract ... to develop a process and timeline for considering the new waste-to-energy facility."

What? A study to plan a study?

Get on with the Feasibility Plan for the compost facility. Let's find out if "the vision" delivers great benefit to the City, or will not work. Period. Then make a decision to turn back the parkland or move forward with a very profitable and beneficial new technology.

By the way, how about thinking about buying some replacement land as part of the cost of the project, so the Park stays the same size. Surely the value of the land will be part of the economic feasibily study. Anybody priced ten acres of Palo Alto land lately?

Can you feel the frustration of the residents building because the Council is not providing clear leadership on a basic business decision? Staff, and a host of community volunteers, can start laying out the basic data points of study, and we can refine from there if the data is close to suggesting that the project would deliver on the best-case promises. If it is not even close, then let's get on with the park improvements. Mountain View is lapping us again -- just look at their bay front compared to ours.

Once again, while everyone is congratulating everyone on doing a great job -- the job is not getting done.

Respectfully,

Timothy Gray


Posted by Nature lover, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2012 at 11:15 am

In support of Byxbee Park and its future realization:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

Wendell E. Berry was named the 41st Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities by the National Endowment for the Arts

This is what Byxbee Park can be for Palo Alto residents (and others!) who draw inspiration, sustenance, respite, and repose in a harried, hurried, over-developed and sometimes troubled world... Palo Alto's close, compact housing tracts make lots of environmental sense IF we also have open spaces to which to retreat... and close-by open spaces to which we can bike and walk (and not have to drive!) are especially important in these times of "Spare the Air" days... a "birder" of long experience made the trek to Palo Alto from San Francisco recently, and declared the winter birdwatching at Byxbee to be amazing and superior to almost anything in the Bay Area... we have a little-known gem, and need to protect and enhance it... if you haven't joined the many who take peaceful strolls of varying lengths along the trails of Byxbee Park, consider taking a walk there soon -- beautiful sunrises, sunsets, view of the mountains that surround the bay, marshes, birds, reflections, photographic opportunities -- all abound.

This is the priceless treasure we must keep in mind -- though once the location served as a "dump," the thoughtful stewardship of earlier generations of Palo Alto enabled a new and healthier plan -- a vision emerges and is worth realizing as fully as possible...

Take a look for yourself (and if the still composting windrows are blowing and affecting the air quality, realize that activity will soon cease as part of the plan and promise).


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Whoa, City Council. Read Measure E. It was NOT to build a compost factory, it was to undedicate the equivalent of ten football fields of parkland which we will never get back. And the Palo Alto Weekly endorsed this to vote "Yes with caution". Where on the ballot was a place to vote "Yes with Caution"???? Who is supposed to use this 'caution"? THIS city counci??? You've got to be kidding. The power of the press IS awesome, because statistics show that the 'average' voter doesn't bother to get the facts, just read a newspaper's endorsement.. Now the timeline to finish the park, envisioned since 1965, is being pushed back. And yes, Mountain View had/has glorious Baylands vision. Palo Altans voted to build a garbage factory. - a small percentage of the residents.


Posted by pro compost, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Reading above. . . .sounds a lot like whine from sour grapes !!

Measure E won big, but the opponent's whining continues.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

pro-compost--the whining seems to be coming from you guys. Go back and read Measure E--the measure was just to undedicate the parkland--nothing in it about type of composting if any. Time now for our council to start that study--especially if they claim the people have spoken. Not sure what the waste of $30K for a study is for--probably so that the council can put off having to make a controversial decision--that way they can pat themselves on the back next January and tell everyone what a great job they are doing (which will be reported with great fanfare by the Weekly)


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 7, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

FYI On the issue of "rent" on the land: I raised this issue during the campaign -- for the 10 acres, not the full 51 -- both in my public comments and to the advocates on both sides. It got no traction. One of my big frustration with Palo Alto politics is the contempt for details by the City and many of the advocacy groups. During the last Council campaign, I attempted to discuss the HSR issue with one of the (successful) candidates and mentioned what seemed to be intractable problems, I got waved off with "There are plenty of smart people here and I am sure they can figure out a solution."


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On delaying the capping of the remainder of the park: This issue was raised repeatedly during the campaign by the opponents, although it didn't get much attention in the coverage and discussion.

Consequently, it would seem to me that the voters chose to allow the City to leave the site uncapped (and unusable) for the duration of the measure (10 years). Or alternatively to cap the site and spend millions redoing the cap when the facility is built (the cost was mentioned during the campaign).


Posted by awakenow, a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2012 at 11:11 am

Pro-compost and others, it is nice to see the Palo Alto citizens waking up to hold council accountable.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Just to be clear, Measure E set aside 10 acres "for the purpose of building a biological conversion facility to handle yard trimmings, food waste and/or sewage sludge." It did not specify the technology to be used for that facility. It will be up to Council, through the usual process of staff work, studies, RFIs, and citizen input, to determine the best solution.

The text of Measure E is posted on the city's website: Web Link, in which the "Findings" are legally non-binding background info to set the stage, and the "Enactments" are the legally binding part:

ENACTMENTS
1. Removal from Parkland: The real property described below (the "Property" herein) shall be removed from dedication as parkland, for the purpose of building a biological conversion facility ("Facility" herein) to handle yard trimmings, food waste and/or sewage sludge from the regional wastewater treatment plant: <...detailed description of the boundary...>

2. Plan Amendments: The Comprehensive Plan, Baylands Master Plan, and Zoning Ordinance shall be amended to be consistent with the purpose described in Enactment 1.

3. Reversion: Ten years from the passage of this Initiative, the City Council may rededicate any portion of the Property not utilized for the purposes of this Initiative to parkland.

4. Mitigation: The Facility shall include the best available and practical methods for mitigating all visual, sound and odor impacts. To avoid impacts on Byxbee Park, access to the Facility shall be by Embarcadero Way.

5. Severability: If any section of this initiative ordinance or part hereof is held by a court of competent jurisdiction in a final judicial action to be void, voidable, or unenforceable, such section or part hereof shall be deemed severable from the remaining sections and shall in no way affect the validity of the remaining sections.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 8, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Small correction on Douglas Moran, who wrote, "...the voters chose to allow the City to leave the site uncapped (and unusable) for the duration of the measure (10 years). Or alternatively to cap the site and spend millions redoing the cap when the facility is built..."

Staff was clear in the Council meeting that the landfill can not remain uncapped for that long. They are delaying the cap by one year so that they can try to figure out in the interim how much, if not all, of the 10 acres would be used, excavate what needs to be excavated, and then cap the landfill. This saves the city millions of dollars compared to capping it in a hurry now, and then having to undo the cap, excavate, and redo the cap.

The landfill was dedicated in 1965. If it was capped this construction season, it would open, staff said, in 2013. If capped next year, it opens 2014. So the wait is 49 years instead of 48 years, a 2% delay.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 9, 2012 at 6:13 am

"It did not specify the technology to be used for that facility. It will be up to Council, through the usual process of staff work, studies, RFIs, and citizen input, to determine the best solution."

Cedric, as usual, does not provide all of the facts. He forgets to mention that the council can decide not to pursue ANY technology and return the 10 acres to parkland, which can happen after 10 years.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 9, 2012 at 8:43 am

Does anyone know if the land could be returned to park usage if the City were to decide that the compost use was not financially feasible?

Public discussions of the initiative were that the land would be "undedicated" for a maximum of ten years, but that the City would perform an analysis post haste and either it the plant solve the a waste problem and has a positive return, or it doesn't "pencil out" and the City moves on with returning the land to the park.

All residents must hold the City leadership accountable for quickly performing a solid business analysis on the project which includes THE COST OF THE LAND. (The project costs must include the Market Value of the land AND the preparation and construction.)

Has anyone tried to buy ten acres of land in Palo Alto lately? Please help in holding the City accountable for a speedy analysis of the project that includes both cost and opportunity cost, just as any business would do. Anything less would amount to an intentional deceipt and a scam on the resident of Palo Alto.

I supported the initiative so we could "open the door" and take a look at a project that had the promise of a nice financial return and was the right thing to do for the environment.

Now, lets get the right data points (including the Market value of the ten acres), put the numbers on a spreadsheet like any business would do, and make a decision. Six months should do it. If it doesn't work, let's get on with having a top-notch bayfront park.

To me, this is the actions that were expected by "the will of the voters." We cannot accept anything less.

Open-mindedness on this issue will lead to a fair and efficient approach. It's time to implant a big dose of objectivity into the Palo Alto process. Analysis that is performed to provide a pre-determined conclusion no longer has a place in Palo Alto City decisions.


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

Timothy--According to the link that Cedric provided it states:

"3. Reversion
Ten years from the passage of this Initiative, the City Council may rededicate any portion of the
Property not utilized for the purposes of this Initiative to parkland. "

BTW, Timothy, glad that you also make the point that the council has to decide if a compost use for the site is feasible and not as Cedric states, that the vote was to decide on which technology to use.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 9, 2012 at 9:28 am

Question: Then if the data clearly showed that the project was not feasible, would we have to have another election if we wanted to re-dedicate the land?

Or could the Council do that by a vote?

If a vote was required, how many signatures would be needed to get it on the ballot? Would a measure to re-dedicate the land require a simple majority? If so, it seems that this could be done on the regular election cycles without too much cost.

Of course, I would like to see a plan that showed a "Digester" that really provided a premium return to the City and demonstrated a great environmental benefit, with the profits going to purchase replacement land: (from the Measure) "9. The Council may compensate for the aforesaid removal by dedicating other areas of equal or greater."

Something tells me that is not going to happen, or they would be rolling out the "rosey" financial projections right away in hot pursuit to put the shovel in the ground. It would NOT be correct to wait nine years and just hope that a profitable technology would come around.

With enough eyes on this, we can make the right thing happen.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 9, 2012 at 10:55 am

I completely oppose the anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. It is inappropriate technology to solve the issues at hand, and it stands a real chance of becoming a huge budgetary hole, especially if the end product compost will not be accepted by the public. It also industrializes an unnecessarily large portion of our future park land.

However, to those who say that the vote to approve the undedication of the park did not mean an approval of AD industrial plant, I think you are very naive. The measure was written with language that did not offer any realistic other alternative (like plasma arc, which is far superior to AD). The entire measure was an attempt to force AD, no matter the cost, no matter the right-or-wrong of it. It was and is a POLITICAL manifesto.

Our current city council consists of members who are beholden to the very group who pushed through this measure. They will not oppose AD, come hell or high water, studies or not. It is a boutique project that positions them in a political sweet spot in Palo Alto: GREEN (apparently).

Like the HSR vote, this AD turkey will prove to be much too costly, and ineffective and cost a ton of money...but the current council can simply kick the can down the field, for future citizens to pay for. Unfortunately, it is already a done deal.


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