Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 26, 2010

Guest Opinion: Baylands park debate raises question of 'How green is green?'

by Emily Renzel

Palo Alto in the 1960s had parks, but city fathers often wanted to use them for parking lots, firehouses, developer deals and other things. By the time the public missed whole parks or parts of them it was too late.

In 1965 Enid Pearson led others in circulating an initiative petition drive for a City Charter amendment to protect our parks by requiring a public vote if any park or part of a park were to be permanently or temporarily taken out of park use. That passed with 80 percent in favor, becoming the Parks Dedication Ordinance of today.

As a result we have a remarkable park system that contributes greatly to our quality of life and our property values.

Our baylands and foothills are our crown jewels, with open spaces in which to refresh ourselves. All the city's baylands were park dedicated in 1965 except for a few municipal facilities. Since 1977 the city has had a Baylands Master Plan guiding constant improvements to our baylands. Acres of wetlands have been restored. Trails, benches and restrooms have been provided. Best of all, our baylands connect to parks in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and Mountain View to provide tremendous bayside recreation opportunities.

An attempt, beginning in 1999, to grab land from Byxbee Park for an Environmental Services Center, a garbage processing facility, was quashed by the City Council in 2005 following years of contentious debate. It would have taken 19 acres for a large industrial-strength building.

A 22-member Zero Waste Task Force, on which I served and attended every meeting, then worked for two years and recommended using regional facilities for composting.

Former Councilman Peter Drekmeier in 2007 proposed another grab, to keep composting where it is on 7.5 acres of Byxbee Park. The city's Parks Commission and the Planning and Transportation Commission both recommended against it.

A Composting Task Force was appointed and ultimately recommended removing composting from Byxbee Park when the landfill was closed in 2012. The task force found that transportation within 50 miles or so was a relatively minor source of carbon production compared to sewage-sludge incineration. Ignoring the task force, the council then asked staff to review land southeast of the Wastewater Treatment Plant — all dedicated parkland.

That is where the matter now stands.

Now, in the name of clean energy, a movement is afoot to circulate an initiative to undedicate 8 acres of Byxbee Park to build an industrial anaerobic-digestion composter on our park that will be prominent within its viewshed — a featured park asset. If 8 acres of Foothills Park were proposed for such a use there would be outrage.

ByxbeePark deserves no less respect. The promise of a costly 4-acre "green roof" is just a promise. Palo Alto's garbage rates are nearly the highest in the Bay Area and the council is unlikely to raise those rates for a green roof.

Despite staff recommendations against it, the initiative proposes to cut into existing landfilled areas. It is "greenwashing" to purport to be addressing global warming with a composting facility that rips out more than 2 acres of mature landscaping and paves more than 8 acres of parkland.

Current efforts snub the public vision . Over the years hundreds of people helped to plan our Baylands. Three generations have waited for completion of this major pastoral open space park, and no less than 10 city councils have reaffirmed their commitment to Byxbee Park's completion. Sabotaging Byxbee Park now violates that long effort.

Anaerobic digestion is experimental and costly. Not a single full-scale anaerobic digestion facility has been built anywhere in the U.S. to process food waste, yard waste and sewage sludge. All economic projections are therefore speculative at best. We ratepayers will bear that risk.

We don't need to risk millions or use parkland. In partnershp with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, we have taken care of our garbage at the regional SMaRT Station since 1992 This is not an issue about whether we continue to compost our organics. It is a matter of "where." The 2008 Zero Waste Plan recommended the regional approach for composting. All of the economic analyses have shown that SMaRT is the most cost-effective. As the Compost Feasibility Study points out, such operations are typically located in rural areas such as Gilroy due to noise, dust, odors, and traffic, as well as proximity to end-user markets. The normal 1000-foot buffer for noise, odors and other impacts would encompass all of Byxbee Park.

The market is unknown for compost with sewage sludge in it. Palo Alto has had difficulty in marketing our yard trimmings compost and there is even more market resistance to compost that has food waste or sewage sludge in it. The finished product will have to be shipped long distances to whatever markets exist for it.

An initiative has no environmental review or engineering feasibility. If the council were to initiate park undedication, there would have to be an engineering feasibility study and programmatic environmental impact report.

However, the California Environmental Quality Act does not apply to a citizen initiative, so voters will be buying a pig in a poke. Once the parkland is undedicated, it could be used for anything without voter approval.

On April 5 the council will consider a staff recommendation to defer any further consideration of anaerobic digestion of compost unless a viable site is identified.

Staff also recommends looking at conversion technologies for sewage sludge in the Water Quality Plant Master Plan process (contained within the existing plant site) — identified as a major carbon savings.

Those are reasonable recommendations reflecting the concensus of all our advisory boards. They will allow for orderly closure of our landfill and, finally, completion of Byxbee Park.

Emily M. Renzel served as a City Council member from 1979 to 1991 after serving earlier on the city Planning and Transportation Commission. She is coordinator of the Baylands Conservation Committee and has long been active in baylands-protection efforts, with a baylands wetlands area in recognition of her efforts. She can be e-mailed at marshmama2@att.net.

Comments

Posted by Bryan Long, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:21 am

The 2009 Blue Ribbon Task Force on Composting, of which I was a member (as was Emily), recommended that the City build a modern, clean, low-odor "anaerobic digestion" facility adjacent to the water treatment plant to transform all our organic wastes --yard clippings, food and other compostables, and sewage-- into green energy and quality compost. The technology is not unproven. There are over 70 full-scale plants operating in Europe, Asia, and Canada using the kind of technology proposed for Palo Alto. There are none in the U.S. because until recently, it was simply cheaper to dump everything into a landfill. New premium pricing for renewable energy, requirements for landfill diversion, rising disposal costs, and concerns over climate change have now made this technology a money saver for cities like Palo Alto. The Blue Ribbon Task Force was instructed by City Council to avoid land dedicated as current or future parkland in our recommendations. This ruled out the most obviously appropriate solution, which was to take a small portion of the current landfill. This is land that has already been heavily impacted and will never be wetland or truly natural habitat again. The successful effort 40 years ago to protect the Baylands from commercial development was a blessing to our city, and I want to thank Emily and Enid and all the others that helped make that happen. But forty years later, we still have a dump, not a park, and where are we going to get the money to transform that wasteland into a park? And while open space is necessary and wonderful, there are larger environmental concerns like climate change that demand certain sacrifices of one good for another. This is our own "waste". Why should we pay someone else to make money off of it, when we could do it more environmentally ourselves and save more than $1 million per year? Commissions, Councils, and Task Forces are all very useful, but the land and the waste belong to the citizens of Palo Alto, so let's put this to the voters!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 26, 2010 at 9:42 am

I can explain why Palo Alto shouldn't add a "anaerobic digestion" facility but instead work toward the establishment of a park. It is the same reason the City shouldn't be approving the building of oversized homes and dense developments.

Palo Alto has added housing and commercial development and plans to add more (think hospital growth, for example) in the past few years. Has anyone done a recent audit of our infrastructure?

Infrastructure is the skeletal support of communities
and regions, and it requires effective, transparent
government policies to guide its planning, spending,
building, and maintenance. Growing populations,
resource-intensive development patterns, new
technology requirements of a rapidly changing
economy, and several decades of underinvestment
have combined to create a large backlog of
infrastructure projects.

Over the next two decades, the need for substantial infrastructure
investments is expected to increase. Building or
maintaining schools and colleges, water systems,highways, roads, mass transit, telecommunicationssystems, and parks require infusions of financial support that compete with other services for limited
federal and local funds. Decisions must be made about when and where to allocate these dollars.

Palo Alto residents can only pay so much in fees to support infrastructure maintenance and inprovement. For example, when someone is over 65, working full-time (and in the case of Stanford University staff, suffering wage freezes) and their home is the only wealth they can leave to their children - how can they be expected to support financially the population, housing and developments that require larger infrastructure?

What happened to the water resevoirs that were to be put on Stanford University land? Is this a debt we owe? Who will pay for the consequences of growth?


Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:27 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Whose town is this? Emily and her constituents have lead to the imminent closure of our recycling center (in the name of a a park), and the closure of our composting center (in the name of a park). They stand in front of Council with a rule book admonishing Council from thinking about future duties to the environment. We are intimidated because we stand in front of their strict vision.

Palo Alto is a community that stands on two environmental legs - one leg protective of our open spaces, and another critical leg of embracing and leading in sustainability. Palo Alto can balance two environmental interests within her boundaries. The fiscal and environmental challenges dictate we adapt and tweak policies set 30 years ago. We no longer build a park by shipping our wastes to Gilroy, Sunnyvale, San Jose and beyond. We adapt toward an organics facility empathetic to its proximity to park, controlling our city's environmental impact, and serving the city's financial responsibilities.

Palo Alto will decide across the next few months whether to follow its Blue Ribbon Task Force's recommendation to pursue this local organics management facility. We ask that the Council 1) maintain the moratorium on accepting more waste into the dump, 2) begin a feasibility study of this local anaerobic digestor, and 3) validate by a survey the support within for this local facility. We anticipate strong support given a Palo Alto Online poll with at least 80 percent of the citizens supporting this local approach. We are sharing our understanding at Web Link, and invite your participation.


Posted by KenN, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:45 am

I agree with Resident that we should minimize costs today and into the future, and we should maximize parkland. The waste digester that has been proposed would cut costs by over $1 million per year, and would lock in today's prices so we wouldn't have to pay more in future as oil and landfill prices rise. The plant would not impact today's 26-acre Byxbee park; it would only reduce the future Byxbee park expansion (when the dump closes), from a total of 126 acres to 121 acres. It's a tiny reduction in a park that doesn't even exist yet. We'll never notice the land use, and we'll save a lot of money. If current estimates are correct, the cost of a study would be paid back in one month's savings. I think we should at least study this further.


Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 26, 2010 at 11:49 am

This is what happens when you:

1) Name places after living people--their egos get a boost and they think the city worships them as if they were royalty

2) Have people who refuse to acknowledge that times and circumstances change. To say that 20+ years ago, the council said this or said that and now 20 years later the circumstances and awareness have changed

3) Have a council that is afraid of upsetting said Palo Alto "royalty"


Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm

About 50 years ago, the city had a plan to close the dump and turn it into parkland. 50 years ago global warming was unheard of and gas was 20 cents a gallon! Times change, and so must we.

I think we can have both a good solution to our yard waste, food waste, sewage sludge and parkland. With less then 10% of the total dump land that is now to be parkland we can have it all!

As with any project it is prudent to have a feasibility study to make sure we know all the facts and cost savings. From here it would be a vote of the people to allow this land to be used for this facility. What could be more logical and democratic?

I am actually very excited by this vision of a more sustainable future that produces renewable energy and compost and reduces our greenhouse gas emission all while saving money in the process. All this for just a little bit of existing dump land. What a deal! Let's get on with a study and see where we stand.


Posted by Chuck, a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 12:11 pm

The now aging flower children of the 1960s are out of date. Life has moved on. By preserving the City's dump on the edge of the bay and naming it Byxbee Park, the flower children are trying to pretend it's some kind of wonderful open space, when infact it's a trash heap. It will leak methane gas for years to come.

The City should move forward and set aside 8 acres for our compostables. It sure beats driving the stuff to Gilroy then, when it's processed, driving down to Gilroy again to pick up the City's compost. What Palo Alto created should stay in Palo Alto; we should not dump it on our neighbors.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm

I know I will pay for the expense of the waste digester, but I will never benefit by any cost saving (if a cost saving will occur). The cost saving money will instead be spent to subsidize the continued building on Palo Alto's very valuable land and a very few will profit by this. We can't continue building without cost to residents because infrastructure expenses will rise. We have land that is desert land and we are the part of Santa Clara County that has contaminated our ground water. Land cannot support an infinite number of people.

Why can't we ship our wastes by train to a shared-community facility? We need to stop covering over our open spaces - they are needed by people (especially children), by farmers, by polinating bees and for water retention.

We should never have covered over so much of our Bay. What have we gained by this? We have gained asthma and other respiratory illness (and medical expense) because we lost the air conditioning/cleaninig provided by the Bay.

The more facilities we add the more growth we enable, and excessive growth will never stop. We need small, consistent and well-planned growth over time, because times change and too much growth now won't meet the needs to the future.


Posted by Kent Schneeveis, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm

A modern, clean, low-odor "anaerobic digestion" facility adjacent to the water treatment plant makes sense. This will be built with the water treatment plant on one side and the dump, Byxbee Park, on the other. We need to un-dedicate 8 acres of Byxbee Park land to build this proven anaerobic digestion facility to handle Palo Alto's municipal resources.

Do citizens know that Palo Alto is paying to incinerate its sewage sludge? Incineration is outdated, costly, and environmentally ridiculous. A very few other towns do this and anaerobic digestion allows Palo Alto to shut down the incinerator.

Do Citizens of Palo Alto want to live in a city that pays to have its municipal waste trucked many miles, to Gilroy, because it can't manage itself? Palo Alto has always been innovative. A clean, low-odor "anaerobic digestion" facility that handles our resources and generates clean power would be the crown jewel of Byxbee Park and of Palo Alto.

An end note, I am all for parks and open space and Byxbee Park too, which will stay a park, minus the 8 acres for the "anaerobic digestion" facility. For those worried about noise, trucks going to the facility will take the street that leads to the water treatment plant (where we go to drop off hazardous household materials). Therefore folks going to Byxbee park will not be impacted by trucks. There will still be noise from the water treatment plant and the airport. People need to keep in mind that Byxbee Park is essentially our landfill, the dump. Having a modern, clean, low-odor "anaerobic digestion" facility built there will again put Palo Alto on the map, this time leading the way to fight global warming.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Why are we focusing on anaerobic digestion, when we could leap forward to plasma arc waste disposal? Web Link

Here we are in the heart of Silicon Valley, and we act like we are back in the 1980s, making beer. Plasma arc technology requires a much lower physical footprint, and it has the possibility of being self sustaining, because it can generate electricity. Any feasibility study should be on plasma arc, not anaeorobic digestion.


Posted by Carroll Harrington, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I totally agree with Bob Wenzlau and the others who support "updating" Palo Alto's definition of parkland. Altho the legal term seems to be "undedicating," I see it as another "green" use of this land.

While I applaud Enid Pearson, Emily Renzel and others (including me) who worked to save the Baylands in the '60s, I strongly believe that conversion of a mere eight acres to a local organics management facility is adapting to the climate changes that are happening to Palo Alto and the world. We will still have 122 acres of Byxbee Park, plus a beautiful viewshed with the proposed "green roof," landscaping and a trail around the area.

I would also like to see an interpretive center to teach children and adults about the values of composting and zero waste. Perhaps this could be accomplished with the help of the Environmental Volunteers, which will be residing in the former Sea Scouts building.

What a grand vision this can be for Palo Alto! I urge the council to proceed with a survey and/or feasibility study.


Posted by Laura Stec, a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 26, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Every community should take care of their own trash within their own boundaries. The best way to encourage people to reduce, reuse and recycle is letting them see where their trash actually ends up. In the long run - this method could save even more parkland for future generations to enjoy. Bring on the study!


Posted by Brandy Faulkner, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I live in the neighborhoods closest to the landfill, have been a lifelong resident of Palo Alto, am an environmentalist and I'm in favor of the anaerobic digester! Why? Because I've researched it and the benefits far outweigh the cons. Let's be clear about a few things:

1) As much as we love Byxbee Park, it's not prime parkland at present. It's not about to be restored to wetlands and it's void of wildlife. I feel that dedicating another piece of land, with more critical wildlife conservation potential, is a fair trade in this instance.

2) The proposed facility uses only 8% of Byxbee Park and will go to great lengths to be visually attractive and environmentally sound. If this were 8% of Foothills Park, I'd feel differently, yes. But it's not. It's 8% of our present dump.

3) The revenue and savings created from this project would HELP add new parkland and maintain current parks.

4) There needs to be a sea change in the way we deal with our waste and refuse. There needs to be a sea change in behavior. This project shows tremendous leadership (in true Palo Alto style) as well as environmental and financial responsibility.

My mother always taught me that if you make a mess, you clean it up. There's no such thing as throwing something "away". Is zero-waste a lofty goal? You bet. But don't let the best be the enemy of the good. Choosing to do nothing over getting creative can only keep us behind the curve here.


Posted by Breht Napoli, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 26, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Energy-rich compost and other waste products are too costly and too valuable to discard. I fully support a feasibility study to determine the pros and cons of an anaerobic digestion facility in a portion of Byxbee Park. I frequent the area on my bicycle. I very seldom see anyone on the paths established on the old landfill. So, a small portion of the area dedicated from the landfill area now closing would not be missed.

Transportation costs are certain to skyrocket when and if the economy begins another expansion. This is easy to predict with oil currently at $80+/bbl while in a depression and with about 20% real unemployment in CA. An aerobic facility would allow tremendous transportation cost savings and provide a to supplement our energy needs.

Let's get on with the study. I will vote for rescinding the rules established to protect parks for such a facility if the study shows it would be long-term cost effective.


Posted by Cost?, a resident of Meadow Park
on Mar 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

We are talking about saving money, even making money.So,

How much will it cost to do a study?

How much will it cost to build it?


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2010 at 3:54 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Emily Renzel's GuestOp does a disservice by focusing so heavily on the Parkland Dedication Ordinance. But there are sections that raise serious questions about the feasibility of what is being proposed. The Composting Facility has lots of analogies to the earlier Environmental Services Center (ESC) (which was mentioned in Renzel's GuestOp). A reminder of that experience seems appropriate.

1. Prestige project/a toy others don't have. The ESC was proposed as a facility that, in the words of its advocates, would be "a lighthouse to the rest of the country" and an educational facility that "children from all over the Bay Area" would visit. Consequently, cost was no object. Revenues were grossly inflated (one $1M/yr item was presented as yielding $7M/yr).
Very similar descriptions are being used here. Are we trying to do good, or just look good and have bragging rights?

2. The philosophy of "Every community should take care of their own trash within their own boundaries" (re-iterated by a poster on this thread). This philosophy was repeatedly invoked to suppress discussion about economies of scale and whether the facility wasn't wasting resources. The ESC was a fancy name for a garbage _sorting_ facility, with the sorted materials then being trucked out of the City. When asked to explain why merely sorting garbage met this philosophy, the environmental advocates were unable to explain, resorting to repeating their mantra.

3. A refusal to recognize that "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions" and that "The Devil is in the details." Much of the battle over the ESC involved trying to pry details out of the City and the environmentalists advocating it, and finding out that due diligence hadn't been done or that the details were being suppressed because they were "inconvenient". The ESC was finally killed when it became undeniable that its advocates could not provide a rational case for it.
What I hear from the advocates of this project is "There is a problem and we need to do something" as having the logical consequence "Therefore, anything we do will be good".

4. Financially irresponsibility: Changes that the City made trying to make the ESC "inevitable" resulting in Palo Alto not being able to use its share of its existing garbage sorting facility (the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale) of which it is a co-owner. Not only did Palo Alto fail to use something it had already paid for, it had to pay millions of dollars in penalties because we weren't sending it the contracted amount of materials.
With this composing proposal seems to be a push to lock the City in long before costs are know-able. ("Feasibility Study" is often used in the sense of providing "proof" that it is feasible rather than actually analyzing whether it is).

Notice that Renzel's GuestOp cites the need for a large buffer around the composting facilities of the type proposed, but Drekmeier's companion GuestOp protrays the facility's impacts as being limited to the land it directly occupies.

Renzel claims "Anaerobic digestion is experimental and costly. Not a single full-scale anaerobic digestion facility has been built anywhere in the U.S. to process food waste, yard waste and sewage sludge." Drekmeier's counters with "Anaerobic digestion is a tried and true technology, with more than 15 facilities currently operating in Germany and another nine in the pipeline." This sets off alarm bells first for what it doesn't say, and then for the characterization of only 15 facilities as "tried and true". That there are only 9 facilities in the pipeline in a country the size of Germany is troubling--it is a level that suggests political decisions that are contrary to the technical and economic merits. (Note: if the technology was "experimental" rather than "tried and true", the 9 could be the remaining part of a reasonable initial deployment).

In my early days in the tech industry, I had to participate in various Beta tests and was repeatedly impressed by how expensive that participation was. A saying sticks with me "You can always tell who the pioneers are by the arrows in their backs." I fear that Palo Alto does not understand this.


Posted by Bryan Long, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 27, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Douglas Moran (above) raises the kind of concerns that should be raised and answered before making a large investment in a new facility. I can provide some answers to his questions, but ultimately this is why we need a feasibility study. A feasibility study will probably cost around $100,000-- a necessary expense before a major capital investment, but well worth it if the return on investment is as good as it looks right now. So let me first answer to Douglas' concern that advocates for this project are "blind advocates" who aren't concerned with costs or impacts, or who think anything we do will be good. I am an advocate of this project, but I'm an economic pragmatist. If a feasibility study determines that this project would wind up significantly increasing costs for the City compared with expected long-term costs of composting in Gilroy, I would not want to see the project proceed. I've spent a lot of time researching the technology and working with others on the probable costs and returns. It looks good. There is never any way to know future costs and revenues precisely, but that is true for all alternatives as well. Regarding the technological risks, this is actually very well established, proven technology. I have let Peter Drekmeier know he is selling the maturity of the technology short by referring to the 15 plants in Germany. That is actually only the full-scale plants installed by one vendor, Bekon, that has what might be the most attractive variant of a quite mature technology. In fact, there are over 70 full-scale plants of the type we are considering operating in Europe, Asia and Canada, using technology from at least five different vendors. Together, they are processing over 2 million tons of sewage, food waste, and yard clippings per year. (Source: Web Link) The reason that there is widespread deployment in Europe but none in the U.S. is because until recently, it was simply cheaper here to dump into a landfill, regardless of environmental impacts. That is no longer true in our area. For Palo Alto in particular, the business case is helped by the need to retire our expensive sewage incinerator, and by the fact that we run our own utilities and have a need to increase the percentage of renewable power in our mix. Like Douglas, I was also in the tech industry, and am familiar with the risks of being too much of a pioneer. On the other hand, those companies that spotted an emerging market opportunity and got in just ahead of the mainstream became the industry leaders. This is not idealism, this is pragmatism.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields