After more than four hours of debate stretching well past midnight, the somewhat torn council voted 5-4, with Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa and council members Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Yiaway Yeh dissenting, to examine the economic and environmental implications of an anaerobic-digestion facility that would turn compost, food waste and sewer sludge into energy.
The proposal faced heated opposition from conservationists who urged the council not to put a waste-processing facility in Byxbee Park, which lies at the east end of Embarcadero Road.
The city's current composting operation is located at a landfill in Byxbee Park. But the landfill is scheduled to close in 2012, at which time the land it occupies is set to revert to dedicated parkland. Palo Alto voters would have to approve using the land for composting before anything is built on it.
Councilman Larry Klein, who proposed funding the new feasibility study and the accompanying Environmental Impact Report, called the composting debate a difficult one, with "people of good will on both sides." He said he'd be troubled to do anything that hurt Byxbee Park. But he also said he was concerned about the planet his grandson would be inheriting.
"We have the opportunity to create a facility that would not only be beneficial for our community in a variety of ways but can also serve as an example to other communities," Klein said. "There's a great deal of urgency that we move. We cannot delay all these things because I think we're running out of time."
On Monday night, the council heard from both sides of the debate, though most spoke in favor of the new facility. A coalition of more than 300 environmentalists, including Walt Hays, David Coale and former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, had lobbied the council to fund the feasibility study.
Drekmeier estimated that the waste-to-energy facility could bring the city $1 million in revenues every year, along with additional funds the city could bring in, in tipping fees for hauling local waste.
"This is a case where we can do right now what's great for the environment that's also great for our economy," Drekmeier said.
Conservationists Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson both urged the council to proceed with the current Byxbee Park plan and to turn down the new composting idea.
"In this economic climate, it's unthinkable to saddle Palo Alto with multi-million dollar, speculative project."
The council was also split, with Espinosa and Schmid backing a staff recommendation to defer spending money on studies until the city identifies land other than Byxbee Park for a new composting facility. Espinosa said he favored a "regional" solution to the composting dilemma.
"Let's be clear, this is a major industrial project that in my opinion should be located in an industrial area and not in a park," Espinosa said.
Public Works staff said the city has been talking with GreenWaste, the company that collects Palo Alto's waste, about possibly sending the city's compost to a new biogas facility the company plans to open in San Jose. Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said another company, Harvest Power, is also planning to build an anaerobic-digestion facility in the Bay Area.
In a motion separate from the one directing staff to conduct the feasibility study, Holman proposed that staff continue pursuing regional solutions for composting. That motion also passed 5-4, with Klein, Burt, Shepherd and Price dissenting.
The city's decision resurrects the most ambitious proposal developed last year by a citizen group known as the Compost Blue Ribbon Task Force. The members had spent months analyzing various composting technologies and identifying possible sites for a new facility.
The task force recommended processing compost in aerated static piles as an interim solution and ultimately building an anaerobic-digestion facility.
Under the proposed timeline, the report would be completed and certified in May 2012. Voters would then decide in November 2012 whether to undedicate the parkland so it could be used for the new waste-to-energy plant.
The city would still need to spend several years acquiring the necessary permits and completing more environmental reports. If all were to go according to the plan, the new plant would be built around 2017.