A group of Palo Alto conservationists filed a complaint against the city Friday (Feb. 11) alleging that city officials are violating Palo Alto's agreement with the state by considering a new waste-to-energy plant in the Baylands.
Land-use attorney Tom Jordan and former City Council members Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson are asking the State Lands Commission (SLC) -- the agency charged with land stewardship -- to enforce its rights as the owner of the land along the San Francisco Bay.
Palo Alto has long disputed the state's ownership of the land, but city officials agreed in 1989 to sign a 49-year lease with the state for the land, which includes Byxbee Park. The lease, which expires in 2038, allows Palo Alto to build improvements at Byxbee Park without paying the state any money, provided that "lands do not change from a public recreational use."
A portion of Byxbee Park houses Palo Alto's landfill, which the city plans to fill later this year and cap in 2012. Once that happens, the land is slated to revert to public parkland -- a goal consistent with the city's lease and with the Baylands Master Plan, a comprehensive document that outlines the city's vision for the Baylands.
The Baylands Master Plan notes that the city "disagreed with the SLC's claim of ownership" but agreed to sign the lease "in order to avoid protracted litigation and delaying the construction of Byxbee Park on the landfill site."
Now, Jordan, Pearson and Renzel are arguing that the city is violating its lease with the state by modifying the site maps included in the lease and by considering a new waste-to-energy facility for Byxbee Park.
The city is now exploring the feasibility of building an anaerobic digestion plant on a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park next to the Regional Water Treatment plant. The plant, which would convert yard trimmings, food waste and sewer sludge into electricity, is being championed by a broad coalition of local environmentalists and is the subject of an ongoing feasibility study which the city plans to release in the spring.
A large coalition of environmentalists, including former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and curbside-recycling pioneer Bob Wenzlau, have been lobbying the city to build the new waste-to-energy facility. Meanwhile, a group of local conservationists has argued persistently that Byxbee Park is not the place for such a facility.
Jordan, who specializes in environmental law and who served as the general counsel for the Save the Bay campaign in the last 1960s, said city officials and developers often view open space as opportunities for development. He has spoken at numerous City Council meetings about the proposed plant and has consistently argued that such a facility would both violate the city's lease and run counter to public interest.
"This contemplated industrial intrusion into the Baylands is contrary to the goals and recommendations of all previous City Councils, Commissions and Baylands Committees since 1965 for completion of a park on this site, which goals and recommendations are all consistent with the city's existing agreements with SLC," Jordan wrote in the complaint.
He said that while the state owns the land, state officials rely on complaints for enforcement. That's why he, Renzel and Pearson opted to file the complaint with the State Lands Commission.
"We're not against anaerobic digestion, we just don't want it on parkland," Jordan told the Weekly in an interview Friday. "We are simply asking the state to enforce the lease."
He also pointed out in his complaint that the map of Byxbee Park that is included in the lease varies from the one in the city's Baylands Master Plan. Though the total area remains the same in both maps, the parcel lines within the maps are different. The two maps differ on a section of Byxbee Park marked "Parcel IIC," which is located next to the water treatment plant and which is not included in the city's lease with the state.
The parcel currently houses Palo Alto's landfill operation. According to the complaint, the parcel is slated to be included in the city's lease once the landfill closes.
The complaint alleges that the city modified the landfill map by trimming about 11 acres from the other parcels and adding them to Parcel IIC, thereby increasing it to 51.2 acres. Jordan speculated that the city's Public Works Department may have modified the maps in the early 1990s because city officials wanted to use the land in Parcel IIC for composting and because city officials wanted to increase the revenues Palo Alto takes in from its refuse operations.
Cara Silver, Palo Alto's senior assistant city attorney, said the city has been corresponding with the State Lands Commission about bringing a new composting operation to the landfill. The state agency had informally indicated that a composting operation could be compatible with the land, as long as the city goes through a formal process to modify its lease with the state.
"The state would want to know exactly what the operation is and they would review it," Silver said.
She said it's too early in the process to discuss with the State Lands Commission the specific proposal for an anaerobic digestion facility. Even if the council agrees to build the facility, Palo Alto would have to hold a citywide vote to "undedicate" parkland so that the site can host the new waste-to-energy plant.
Silver also said the city is in the process of verifying the accuracy of the maps, which she said have changed over the years as portions of the landfill were converted to parkland.
Drekmeier, who is leading the drive to undedicate the land, told the Weekly that the concerns in the complaint are issues that have been brought up over the course of many years and have never caused a problem. He characterized the complaint as a "desperate attempt to slow things down" by opponents of the proposed anaerobic digestion plant.
Drekmeier said his initiative needs 4,356 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. His group already has 4,360 signatures, but it's pushing for 5,000 to account for any signatures that would not be validated.
The group has to submit the signatures by the middle March.
"We've got great momentum," Drekmeier said. "We've been getting such a great response from the community.
"We will qualify for the ballot -- this is their attempt to stop that."
Jordan, Pearson and Renzel all oppose the undedication of Byxbee Park parklands. Pearson, who served on the City Council from 1965 to 1975, told the Weekly that the complaint seeks to enforce the council's pledge to convert the landfill to parkland. She and Renzel are both known for their advocacy of open parks and the Baylands conservation.
"They ought to obey the rules and make sure the promises that the land will be parkland are carried out," Pearson said.