In short, there is no easy choice for a local composting site, where local yard and food waste from households and businesses, along with sewer sludge, could be turned into energy.
City officials have struggled for the past year to determine what to do with the composting operation once the city's landfill in Byxbee Park closes in 2012. On Monday night, the City Council learned that all three of the sites staff had previously considered for a new composting facility face significant financial and legal barriers and are therefore unlikely locations.
The council is scheduled to resume the composting discussion on April 5.
One site the council had previously considered was a strip of Palo Alto Airport land on Embarcadero Road adjacent to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. Last fall, the city's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Composting recommended the airport site as a possible location for an advanced "anaerobic digestion" facility.
But staff said Monday night that putting a composting plant just north of the wastewater facility would impact the airport and require the city to sway a vociferous group of airport supporters and the Federal Aviation Administration, which opposes the plan. In October, the council directed staff not to consider sites that would impact the airport — direction that essentially eliminated the airport site.
The council had also asked staff to evaluate a strip of privately owned land along Embarcadero Way and the northwest corner of the current landfill site in Byxbee Park. Staff said Monday that buying up the needed private land would cost between $22 million and $35 million and would likely require the use of eminent domain. Staff concluded the option is "extremely expensive," said Phil Bobel, the city's environmental compliance manager.
The 4.7-acre site adjacent to the wastewater plant at Byxbee Park appears to be the most promising site, according to the staff analysis. But the site is scheduled to revert to parkland when the landfill closes in 2012. Any attempt to build a new facility on the dedicated site would need to be approved by Palo Alto voters.
Bobel said the city could consider dedicating other parkland sites in exchange for the right to build a new composting facility on the Byxbee Park site.
"We think something can be done," Bobel said. "The big hurdle is the vote."
But several residents told the council Monday night they would oppose plans involving dedicated parkland, even if other areas in the city become dedicated parkland.
"No more committees, no more land trades. Just direct staff to complete the park at an earliest possible time," urged Enid Pearson, a former Palo Alto mayor.
The lack of easy choices makes it increasingly likely that the city will begin shipping its compostable material to the Z-Best facility in Gilroy once the current landfill closes in 2012. Last year, dozens of residents argued in a series of heated public meetings that the city has an obligation to take care of its own compost.
David Coale, who sits on the board of directors of the environmental nonprofit Acterra, urged staff to seriously consider the Byxbee Park site, noting the new composting facility would only occupy a small fraction of the park. He asked the council to take the proposal to the voters.
"A vote of the people is the fair thing to do," Coale said. "In an era where we have minorities strong-arming our democracy at the state and federal level, I'd hate to see this happen at the local council level."
The compost task force also recommended arranging compost in "aerated static piles" on airport land in the near term, while city officials pursue an advanced waste-to-energy facility. Bobel estimated that the aerated static piles would cost the city about $3 million. Staff opposes the task force's recommendation, however.
"It's not recommended primarily due to cost and not having an available site," Bobel said.
Councilman Greg Scharff said the Byxbee Park site appears to be the only possible option, based on the staff study. He suggested polling the public for opinions about the Byxbee option.
Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a leading advocate of building a local waste-to-energy facility, also urged the city to conduct a citizen survey.
"Unfortunately, we're not too much further along because staff feels they can't move forward until the park dedication issue is resolved," Drekmeier said. "I think it's a good solution to have a survey that lets us know what the will of the people is."