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.