As Palo Alto's environmentalists continue to battle over whether to build a waste-to-energy plant in the Baylands, they are also clashing over the larger question of whether the city has a right to build industrial facilities on land it may not even own.
Both the city and the State Lands Commission (SLC) -- California's official steward of open space -- have long claimed ownership of the Palo Alto Baylands. Despite its position, the city agreed in 1989 to lease the land from the state at no cost -- an arrangement that requires it to get state permission for any major land-use changes at the site.
The decades-old ownership debate spilled over into Palo Alto's heated argument over the future of composting last month, when a group of conservationists who oppose the new facility petitioned the SLC to assert its ownership of the Baylands and prevent the city from pursuing the new plant. This week, proponents of the plant responded with their own letter to the SLC, asserting that the new facility would be perfectly consistent with the state agency's goals.
The Byxbee Park land that currently houses the city's landfill is slated to become parkland after the landfill (and the composting operation on the landfill) closes down next year. When that happens, Palo Alto is slated to begin shipping its yard trimmings to Gilroy and its food waste to San Jose.
Hays, a well-known environmentalist and one of the leaders of the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative, cited an excerpt from a resolution that the SLC adopted in 2008 stressing the importance of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. The resolution notes that the state's "current energy use is taking a financial toll on its citizens and the economy, as well as making the state more dependent on foreign oil," and points out that California is "already feeling the effects of climate change."
Given this resolution, Hays wrote in his letter, "it would be hard to find an action more strongly consistent with the foregoing policies than the Initiative." If Palo Alto builds the new waste-to-energy facility it would be able to halt its much-maligned practice of incinerating sewage waste, Hays wrote. The city also wouldn't need to truck its yard trimmings and food scraps to other Bay Area locations.
Conservationists Emily Renzel, Enid Pearson and Tom Jordan have persistently argued that the city should keep its promise of converting the landfill land to public parkland. In their letter to the SLC, Jordan wrote that the proposed facility 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 the SLC."
Hays and other proponents of the new facility disagree and claim the proposed facility would be perfectly consistent with the SLC's mission to work for "public trust." They cite a letter that Nancy Smith of the SLC sent to the city in 2009, saying that "composting is a permissible trust use, as long as it's regional and has benefit to the people of the State California."
Smith also wrote that if the city pursues the new facility it would have to amend its lease for the Baylands. Furthermore, if composting becomes a revenue-generating source for the city, the state agency may consider charging rent, she wrote.
Meanwhile, Hays, former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and Bob Wenzlau are collecting signatures to get the land-use issue on the November ballot. Voters would have to "undedicate" the 10 acres of parkland in Byxbee Park before any facility could be built on the site.
In an interview this week, Drekmeier said he was confident most Palo Altans would support his group's proposal to explore other uses for this portion of Byxbee Park. The City Council, he said, is currently stuck in a "chicken-or-egg" dilemma over the city's composting options: it can't commit to the new facility because the city don't have the land for it and it doesn't want to rush into undedicating the land because it's not clear whether a waste-to-energy facility would be economically feasible.
"All the initiative does is make the land available and allows us to have options," Drekmeier said. "The next big debate, once we have the land, is do we want to use it?"
The Initiative has already collected more than 5,287 signatures, far more than the 4,356 needed to place the measure on the November ballot, said Carolyn Curtis, a member of the initiative's steering committee.
Meanwhile, the city's consultant is preparing a feasibility study that is comparing the costs of building a local anaerobic-digestion facility to the costs of shipping yard trimmings and food scraps elsewhere. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the preliminary results of the study on March 21.