News

Green attorneys clash over Baylands plant

Walt Hays, proponent of new waste-to-energy plant, says facility would be consistent with SLC's 'public trust' mission; some conservationists disagree

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.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 11:42 am

Re: 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."

What does this really mean? How wide an area does "regional" mean? Will it require more than the proposed acreage? Will we end up with a steady stream of waste hauling vehicles at an already overburdened Embarcadero/101 interchange? How about their CO2 emissions? There are a lot of questions, both financial and environmental, that need detailed answers.


Like this comment
Posted by Seek-Regional-Solutions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

> How wide an area does "regional" mean?

Bigger than local, and smaller than state-wide.

> Will it require more than the proposed acreage?

Most assuredly. But if that acreage is not in the Baylands, what's it matter where it is?

> Will we end up with a steady stream of waste hauling vehicles
> at an already overburdened Embarcadero/101 interchange?

Yet to be determined. Certainly this is an issue.

> How about their CO2 emissions?

These trucks can use CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) engines--that don't produce as much CO2 as diesel/gasoline.


Like this comment
Posted by On the fence
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I want to understand more about the anaerobic facility. Its costs, the details of what will go in that space are important to this discussion.

Generally, I suppport taking care of our own waste and composting locally IF THAT IS FEASIBLE, but HOW will we do it if we have the land?

I'm not signing the petition until there is a clear, COMPLETE, and FEASIBLE plan on the table. We don't have that yet. The petition is premature.


Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm

The most important aspect of the composting site is that it is a part of the baylands which should never have been invaded by industry. What were the forefathers thinking? Experts from Stanford University and Palo Alto should talk to neighboring cities to find a nearby inland site to place and build this regional facility. Talk about Save The Bay! It is long overdue.
Next we need to remove the airport!!


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

"Experts from Stanford University and Palo Alto should talk to neighboring cities to find a nearby inland site to place and build this regional facility. Talk about Save The Bay! It is long overdue."

Joel,

One obvious implication of your suggestion is that the Stanford foothills be used as a regional anaerobic digestion (AD) facility. It is "inland" and it is in our own backyard. All the haul trucks could avoid that congested intersection at Embarcadero and HWY 101, and be redirected to Junipero Serra, behind Stanford. They can approach that road via Stanford Ave., or Page Mill or Willow or Alpine or Sand Hill. Certainly, the experts from Stanford and Palo Alto can figure that one out.

On the other hand, we can just decide to take the view that our trash should be dumped in the backyards of poor people, especially those of color...fill up THEIR canyons, not OURS!

On the other hand... we could decide to become rational, and explore plasma arc, instead of deciding to build an inefficient industrial AD plant in our baylands or our foothills; or the lands of those poor people (wherever they are, out of sight and mind to Palo Altans). Plasma arc offers the possibility of reversing our current land fill, and returing it to a near-pristine state. It also offers a resposnbile and lower cost solution to our own, self-generated trash.


Like this comment
Posted by Other Alternatives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2011 at 11:50 pm

What Drekmeier and Co. don't tell you is that Green Waste is proposing to build a similar plant in San Mateo. Compost will not have to be driven to Gilroy because Green Waste will be happy to buy it for their plant. How did I find out about this alternative plant? I heard a member of our City Council ask a question about it.

You need to learn the complete story before you sign any Petition for a ballot measure, let alone vote for this Factory-by-the-Bay.


Like this comment
Posted by PA father
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I agree with 'On the fence' that we need to know more.

This could be a regional opportunity, not just Palo Alto’s issue and we should know more about what other cities are planning in the region before making any permanent decisions. Palo Alto isn’t the only city trying to identify the best way to compost and recycle. While it looks like there are a lot of well-intended people putting their heads together to seek solutions, I’ve seen a lot of different things written and it’s difficult to discern fact from advertisements.


Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm

"Other Alternatives", please provide a verifiable reference to Green Waste's planned San Mateo plant. I looked at Green Waste's web site where they mention the planned San Jose plant that I already know about, but your posts on this online forum are the only information I have about a San Mateo plant. Do you mean San Jose instead of San Mateo?


Like this comment
Posted by Enid Pearson
a resident of Addison School
on Mar 15, 2011 at 11:19 am

Santa Clara County and San Mateo County both have regional refuse plans. Palo Alto has been a member of SCC for years and we helped pay for the Sunnyvale SMart Station. If an AD is built, we will still have to pay our share of the SMart Station or buy out our agreement - a big expense. San Jose is currently in the process of building an AD now and it is 10 miles away. They welcome us. We don't impose our waste on poor people. Kirby Canyon is far away from any urban area.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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