At issue is whether the value of having a new-technology, local composting system outweighs the loss of 8 acres of dedicated parkland adjacent to the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant at the end of Embarcadero Road.
As outlined in pro-and-con opinion columns in last week's Weekly (available on www.PaloAltoOnline.com), the plan would use a system called "anaerobic digestion" to compost yard wastes, food scraps and sewage sludge in airtight containers that would produce methane gas and enough electricity to power up to 1,400 homes, according to staff estimates. The technology is used in Europe but not yet in the United States.
The catch is that after an extensive search for sites, a special task force of citizens — some with significant expertise in composting — concluded that there are no feasible sites. They ruled out the parkland site by the sewage plant because of political opposition expected due to the 1965 Park Dedication Ordinance and a later designation of the city's landfill area as future parkland — including the area presently used for recycling and composting immediately south of the sewage plant.
The current proposal envisions using 8 to 10 acres, not the larger existing composting site. About half the site would be under a "green roof" covered with native grasses, enclosing much of the composting operation.
The proposed technology would mix yard clippings with commercial and domestic food scraps to create compost for home use, and with sludge from the sewage plant for compost for commercial use. The sludge currently is incinerated at a cost of about $800,000 a year plus about $240,000 to transport it to a disposal site in the Central Valley.
Anaerobic means that the compost produces methane gas, which can be used to produce enough electricity to operate the sewage treatment plant and provide power to homes. Revenues would be expected from fees from people bringing material to the center and sales of power.
The impacts of the operation could be significant in terms of truck traffic and noise that might intrude on areas of the surrounding Byxbee Park, some potential visual impacts, and loss of about 9 percent of the future park. Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel is a vigorous opponent of any loss of dedicated parkland.
This proposal is vastly different than the ill-conceived Environmental Services Center plan of several years ago, which involved a huge building on a substantially larger site.
Proponents of the composting plan, chiefly former City Council member and Mayor Peter Drekmeier, argue that in this case the economic and environmental benefits outweigh the value of the parkland that would be lost. They note that keeping the operation local would save people from making trips to Sunnyvale to deliver materials or retrieve compost.
They say some revenues and savings from the operation could expedite development of other parts of Byxbee Park, for which no funds presently are allocated or available. The city faces a huge and growing budget shortfall, in addition to a half billion dollars in unfunded capital-improvement projects, they correctly point out.
Some are discussing conducting an initiative-petition drive to place the matter on the November ballot. An alternative is for the City Council to assert its leadership and place it on the ballot. An initiative drive would need more than 4,356 signatures for the Nov. 8 election, or 2,178 signatures for a regular city election next year. An initiative would not require that an environmental-impact study be done prior to the election, whereas an environmental study would need to be done if the council placed it on the ballot.
Either alternative is better than being scared off by the need for voter approval to undedicated the 8 to 10 acres being discussed.
But we do not believe voters should be asked to decide an issue of this importance without a full, clear understanding of the impacts and potential benefits of the operation that an environmental-impact study would delineate.
The Park Dedication Ordinance is an important safeguard for citizens to protect their parklands, but it should not block consideration of a potential innovative composting facility that may have both significant environmental and economic benefits for the community.