Palo Alto's sprawling landfill in Byxbee Park wasn't always the most divisive stretch of city land.
In the 1930s, when the city moved its waste operations from an incinerator at Newell and Embarcadero Roads to the Palo Alto Baylands, the malodorous dump became a social center of sorts, according to Ward Winslow's history of Palo Alto.
"Friends and neighbors hailed one another there, and children who rode with their parents found it a treasure-hunting ground," Winslow wrote. "So did residents rummaging for just the right piece of wood or metal."
These days, as Palo Alto considers major changes to its waste-disposal system, the landfill site is both the city's biggest problem and its most viable solution, depending on which local green leader is talking about it.
The landfill, which also houses the city's composting operation and Recycling Center, is now 98 percent full and is scheduled to close in the next two years. When that happens, the land will either revert to parkland or be used to house an anaerobic-digestion plant, which would transform local yard trimmings, food waste and sewage into electricity.
The next major milestone in the compost debate will come in January, when the city releases a feasibility study evaluating the impact of the new plant. The City Council also commissioned in April an Environmental Impact Report for the proposed facility, a request that followed a bitter debate among council members and Palo Alto's large and vocal green community.
But even if the report concludes that the new facility would be feasible, the project will have to surmount a significant political obstacle. Using the land for the new waste-to-energy plant rather than a park would require a vote of the people to "undedicate" the land.
Peter Drekmeier, a former Palo Alto mayor and a leading proponent of the new facility, told the Weekly that supporters of the anaerobic-digestion plant are preparing to circulate a ballot initiative after Labor Day to undedicate the Byxbee Park site. This spring, Drekmeier, recycling pioneer Bob Wenzlau, environmentalist Walt Hays and other local green leaders launched the Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative -- an effort that promotes keeping composting local and converting waste to energy.
Proponents claim the facility would save the city about $1 million annually and in doing so, reduce the city's greenhouse gases by 20,000 tons a year. Without a local composting facility, local yard trimmings and food waste would get trucked to the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale before proceeding to the Z-Best facility in Gilroy.
Drekmeier said the group plans to collect enough signatures to place the land-use issue on the November 2011 ballot. If the feasibility study shows that the facility wouldn't make economic sense, the group would hold off on the ballot measure, he said.
"The city has been in a chicken-and-egg situation," Drekmeier said. "Some people say they don't want to move forward with the plant if we don't have a guarantee that we can get the land for it; others say we don't want to undedicate the land if we don't have a project.
"We're going to do our part by putting the land issue on the ballot."
The group's effort could also meet a setback if the council chooses to move local elections from odd to even years, as some have proposed. Drekmeier said the group was waiting until 2011 for its ballot initiative to avoid holding a special election for park undedication. If the city moves its election to 2012, the group would have to hold a special election next year -- a process that would cost more money and require twice as many signatures for ballot placement.
To some, undedicating the parkland would be a betrayal of the city's promise to its residents.
Councilman Greg Schmid and Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa both said they oppose a composting plant at Byxbee. Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, a leading conservationist, also opposes the plan, as had former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto. Renzel has argued that the city's best option is to close the landfill, give the people the park they've been waiting for, and take the regional approach to recycling and composting.
"Sending the compost to Z-Best is our best economic alternative in the present time," Renzel said.
Espinosa voiced similar views at the July 20 meeting of the Finance Committee, suggesting the city consider closing its Recycling Center at the landfill as part of its effort to close the $6.3 million budget deficit in the Refuse Fund. The committee ultimately rejected the proposal.
"People don't know when they drive from Mountain View to Palo Alto and Menlo Park," Espinosa said. "We should think regionally about our approaches to waste management and recycling."
In the meantime, the local landfill is proving to be a financial hazard. Under its state permit, the city is required to have about $6 million in reserves to pay for the landfill's closure. But with refuse revenues on the steep decline, the reserve is projected to be nearly dry by the end of the current fiscal year.
The Finance Committee wrestled with this problem earlier this month and on July 20 recommended a package of proposals to reduce expenses and raise the needed funds. These include reducing the landfill operations from seven to five days a week (keeping it closed on Sundays and Mondays); raising fees for clean-soil deposits at the landfill; and increasing landfill gate fees for all materials.
The full council is scheduled to consider these proposals in September, at which point the city's greenest and most contentious debate is set to resume full force.