Palo Alto environmentalists who support building a new waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park hit a crucial milestone in their campaign Tuesday morning when they turned in more than 6,000 signatures to the City Clerk's Office, qualifying the issue for the November ballot.
The ballot measure by the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative would "undedicate" about 10 acres in the 126-acre Byxbee Park so that the city can use the land for waste and composting operations. The land is currently slated to become parkland when the landfill on the site is retired next year and a citywide vote is necessary to change its land-use designation.
Carolyn Curtis, who led the signature-gathering campaign, earned cheers and applause from about 25 people who gathered in front of City Hall to commemorate and celebrate the group's accomplishment. The initiative needed 4,356 signatures to qualify the land-use issue for the ballot. It turned in 6,023 signatures.
Curtis said the group's signature drive received an enthusiastic response from the community, with some residents who don't usually get involved in civic affairs offering their assistance. The group also demonstrated, she said, that "we work, we get results and we know what we're doing."
Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and Walt Hays, an environmentalist, both addressed the group and extolled the potential virtues of a local anaerobic-digestion plant, which would potentially process the city's sewage sludge, food scraps and yard trimmings and convert them to energy. The plant would also allow the city to halt its current practice of incinerating sewage sludge, Hays said.
Hays, an attorney, also addressed a recent challenge from three conservationists, Tom Jordan, Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, who filed a complaint with the State Lands Commission calling for the agency to reassert its ownership of the Byxbee Park land and nip Palo Alto's plans in the bud. The city and the state have long quibbled over who owns the Baylands park and, as a compromise, the city currently leases the property from the state at no cost.
Hays said that even if the state is the official owner, the initiative's goal of putting a waste-to-energy facility in Byxbee Park is consistent with the State Lands Commission's goal of encouraging conservation and reduction of greenhouse gases.
"They already said that what we're trying to do is completely compatible with the public trust," Hays said.
The petition would make it possible for the city to use the 10-acre parcel of Byxbee Park for a new facility after Palo Alto's landfill closes next year. The city is currently slated to ship its yard waste to Gilroy and its food scraps to San Jose once the local landfill is shut down.
The new petition would not commit the city to building an anaerobic digester or any other waste facility at the site, but it would open up the needed land for such a facility. The 10-acre site is next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which Drekmeier and other initiative leaders say make it perfectly suitable for processing sewage waste, yard waste and food scraps.
Meanwhile, the City Council is still analyzing the potential costs of the new facility. Last year, the council commissioned a study to consider various options for disposing local waste after the landfill closes. The council is scheduled to discuss the preliminary results of the feasibility study at its March 21 meeting.