Palo Alto's environmentalists remain at odds over the future of local composting, but the leaders of the two sides in the heated dispute agreed on one thing Monday night -- the language in the ballot measure seeking to settle the dilemma is misleading and should be changed.
The measure, which will appear on the November ballot, asks the voters if the city should undedicate a 10-acre section of Byxbee Park, in the Palo Alto Baylands, to enable the construction of a facility that would process local food waste and yard trimmings and produce energy. The proposal has split the City Council and the city's green community, with some advocating building the plant and keeping composting local and others arguing that Byxbee Park parkland should remain exactly that.
The council Monday night officially placed the measure on the November ballot but only after council members and leaders of the two green camps wrangled about the wording of the ballot measure.
The approved language reads, "Shall ten acres of existing parkland in Byxbee Park be undedicated for the exclusive purpose of building a processing facility for yard trimmings, food waste and other organic materials?"
Both sides found flaws with this wording. Those sympathetic to the waste-to-energy plant, including councilmen Larry Klein and Pat Burt, proposed specifying in the ballot that the parkland in question is "undeveloped." Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a leading proponent of the new anaerobic-digestion facility, said the proposed language is "misleading" because it fails to make clear that the land is at the site of a former landfill and, as such, is far from pristine. Klein agreed.
"Parkland does conjure up the image of fields and baseball diamonds, so I think some additional words are necessary," Klein said. "'Undeveloped' conveys a clearer idea that this isn't an active park at present time."
Those seeking to protect the parkland and ship local yard trimmings elsewhere, including Mayor Sid Espinosa, Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid, sought to strike the word "exclusive" from the question. They proposed deleting the word after former Councilwoman Emily Renzel argued that the word falsely suggests that the parkland would not be undedicated unless the proposed plant were to be built.
"The reality is that if the measure passes, the land will be undedicated," Renzel said. "It's not conditional. There's no automatic reversion (if the plant doesn't get built)."
In the end, neither side could muster the needed five votes to change the wording, leaving the ballot language unchanged. But Monday night's discussion highlighted the deep split in the community and among the council on the issue -- a split that hasn't narrowed at all despite a glut of information that the city has released on the topic over the past year.
The future of composting became a hot-button issue about two years ago when the city began planning for the closure of the landfill at Byxbee Park. The landfill, which includes a composting facility, closed last week, prompting a debate about what to do with local yard trimmings and food waste. Under the current plan, local yard trimmings would be shipped to the Z-Best station in Gilroy while food waste would go to either Gilroy or San Jose.
In what likely foreshadowed the tenor of campaigning on the issue this fall, council members Monday accused one another of injecting politics into the ballot language. Klein and Burt both suggested that opponents of the new facility are proposing to strike "exclusive" from the ballot measure only because they want to appease the conservationists. Holman countered that the same charge could be leveled against the other side and its proposal to add the word "undeveloped."
"Both motions on the floor could be subjected to the same charge," Holman said.
The compost initiative is one of two that voters will be asked to consider on Nov. 8. Residents will also vote on whether the city should eliminate a provision in the City Charter requiring labor disputes between the city and its public-safety unions to go to binding arbitration.