Palo Alto council clashes over compost measure

Council members, environmentalists, seek to change ballot language, fail

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by nat
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm

What happens to the land if the voters pass the ballot measure to undedicate it exclusively for the processing facility and the facility is NOT built?? This was not at all clear in the council's discussion. Would the newly undedicated land remain completely undeveloped for either park or other uses indefinitely?

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 2, 2011 at 3:02 pm

And what is the cost/benefit of this program? Is the sacrifice of rare open space and parkland beneficial in a world of declining natural gas prices?

Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

"What happens to the land if the voters pass the ballot measure to undedicate it exclusively for the processing facility and the facility is NOT built??"

The city government will probably use it for its own purposes. It has wanted to get its hands on more land for a long time. After all, the initiative does not REQUIRE the city to build the advertised composter on that land.

I doubt it's a coincidence that three former mayors -- Drekmeier, Burt, and Klein -- are major backers of this boondoggle.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2011 at 4:05 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Re: Nat: "What happens to the land if the voters pass the ballot measure to undedicate it exclusively for the processing facility and the facility is NOT built??"

The Staff response to this can be found
Web Link. If this doesn't work for you, go to the City's website (Web Link), looking on the right side under "Quick Links" and selecting "CITY COUNCIL MEETINGS - AGENDAS/MINUTES/WEBCASTS" (caps theirs), then selecting "View Council Email" and then selecting "Staff Response to Councilmember Holman's questions re: Item #2." of "Mon 08/01/2011 2:29 PM". If there was a direct link, I would have given it hear, but the design prevents this.

In brief, if the ordinance passes, the land is undedicated immediately and may be rededicated as park land by the Council after an interval of 10-years if the facility is not built, or by the voters at any time.

The question that seemed to be asked by several Council members was what was the status of the land during the interval between the undedication and the point where the composting facility was built or the land was rededicated. I didn't hear an answer to this.

Speculation: Since the land was undedicated, I would expect that it would no longer be the Parks Dept's responsibility to maintain. And since no other department could use it, I would be surprised if they would take over maintenance. It would be in limbo. Property owned by the City that no Dept has responsibility for is not that uncommon in Palo Alto, but such parcels tend to be remnants from the reconfiguration of streets or similar projects and are tiny (less than a few hundred sq ft) and oddly shaped. They tend to be neglected until someone requests that they be accreted to another property and the City agrees to transfer ownership.

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Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Mr Moran

I suspect the city can use the land for whatever it wants on an "interim" basis for as long as it wants. The initiative only removes it from the park.

The initiative language cleverly lacks two vital provisions: (1) a deadline for building the facility, and (2) a non-performance penalty, such as reversion to park dedication status, if the facility is not built within the deadline. You can drive a fleet of garbage (or utility, or etc.) trucks through this loophole.

City Hall can (and will) find an terim" usage that will somehow last indefinitely. I bet the departments are already competing.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Okay, I love a good conspiracy. The site is a former dump and is adjacent to the water treatment plant. The area has no public transportation and is very near the flight path of the airport. What super secret plans you think the City has in mind? A ten acre mansion for the mayor? An underground bunker where council can plot future evil out of view of the voters?

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Posted by Walt Hays
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 3, 2011 at 5:43 pm

The Initiative specifically provides that the 10 acres would be for the "exclusive" purpose of building a facility to convert organic wastes into valuable energy and compost - instead of spending ever increasing amounts to haul it to Gilroy. The claim by opponents that the Council could use it for whatever purpose it wants is simply not true.

The measure also specifically provides that if the facility is not built within 10 years, the Council may rededicate it as a park. The purpose of that provision is to ensure sufficient time for design, construction, and seeking grants - which can take a long time -, but allow rededication if for any reason the facility can't be built.

The Feasibility Study makes clear that it would be helpful for the City to have the land to handle biosolids from the Water quality Control Plant in a better way than the current incineration, which costs $1 million/year and produces thousands of tons greenhouse gas emissions.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2011 at 6:11 pm

"to convert organic wastes into valuable energy and compost"

Walt Hays,

Please define your terms. Does "organic wastes" include man-made organic molecules, or only those organic molecules produced by nature?

Does "valuable energy" include eletrical generation?

Does "compost" include human sewage sludge (please do not confuse the issue by calling it biosolids). The organic farming and consuming community is increasingly rejecting human sewage sludge as compost, with all the toxics it may contain.

The anaerobic digestion solution is a canard. It is projected, by its proponents, to solve the sewage sludge issue, as well as some minor yard timmings issues, but it will require a relatively large industrial footprint on our future park lands. It just doesn't pencil.

Pigs don't fly!

Like this comment
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm

"The claim by opponents that the Council could use it for whatever purpose it wants is simply not true."

Some people do not read their own initiatives.

The garbage initiative does not MANDATE the construction of a facility of any kind on the site. The city is free to use the land on an "interim" basis for whatever it wants, indefinitely. That's it. You can bet it will.

Given that, all the high-falutin' verbiage about "valuable compost" and bogeyman incinerators is completely meaningless.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Creighton Beryl

I found the text of the initiative online (example at the end of Web Link) and don't see anything supporting your claim that there could be interim use. The statements of the sponsors of the initiative and of the City Attorney and the City Council discussion seem to rule this out.

As a practical political matter, if a department tries to use the location on an interim basis, I would expect it to meet stiff resistance from both side of this issue because such a use could establish "facts on the ground" that would be a negative argument (need to move such use elsewhere) to their vision for this space: (1) the proponents would see it as becoming an additional "cost" to building the facility, and (2) the opponents would see it blocking conversion back to parkland.

Disclosure: I currently am opposed to the initiative in part because of its lack of attention to details, such as this one.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom Jordan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm

The Initiative tries to limit the use of the ten acres to "the exclusive use of building a facility for converting yard trimmings, food waste, and other municipal organics and/or sewage sludge ... etc". It also tries to keep the Council from re-dedicating the ten acres as a park for ten years. Both provisions are illegal subject matter for initiatives because they are administrative decisions to be made by the Council, along the same lines as a budget and allocating funds for a capital improvement. Initiatives can only address legislative matters and any attempt to go beyond that is illegal and void, whether a court so rules either before or after the election. The Initiative proponents put in those provisions to lead voters to think they can control the ten acres through the Initiative. They cannot.
The City Attorney has been most cautious in her opinions, always couching them in terms of "the language of the Initiative". Some Council Member should ask her the effect of the Initiative's passing on the powers of the Council in those two areas. Then she would have to say flatly that the Initiative restricts the Council or that it does not. If she says that it does not, then her Impartial Analysis in the Voters' Pamphlet should say the same thing.
The Charter does NOT give the voters power to initiate a undedication and they have never done so. The flow has always been that the Council decides (administrative decision) that it wants to undedicate some park land, but the Charter since 1965 has said it cannot do so without a majority vote of the people. Not unlike wanting float a bond issue but requiring voter approval before it is effective. Having to get voter approval is not the same thing as the voters having the power to initiate the bond measure. They clearly do not have that power.I question whether the Initiative is legal and have filed by complaint with both the City and the County on this point.

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Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm

One can only hope that Drekemeier's boondoggle will not even make it to the voters in November. Drekmeier's plan is a "pie in the sky" folly that will only end up costing the city money. If there is to be a vote, it should be composed of two initiatives--one to undedicate the land and one with a plan for what the land will be used for, so that vote should wait until the city decides what they want to build on the land. Right now, it sounds like you are voting to undedicate the land and to go ahead with Drekmeier's folly. Vote no on this initiative if it ever comes to a vote.

Like this comment
Posted by Alex DiGiorgio
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Did someone up there say 'boondoggle'? That's a good one. I like irony, too.

Measure E will cost $0. All it determines is whether the 10 acres of landfill next adjacent to the sewage treatment plant may be considered for future development of a bioenergy and compost facility.

It doesn't commit Palo Alto to build anything (in fact, it couldn't legally allow development without further environmental review under the the California Environmental Quality Act - CEQA)

If Palo Altans pass Measure E, they'll have the opportunity to perform additional feasibility studies and environmental review. Our community will then be able to conclusively determine what type of waste management strategy will be the safest and most cost-effective.

Measure E - $0.00 - That's one cheap boondoggle, eh?

P.S. The incinerator currently operating at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant costs north of $1,000,000.00/yr to fuel.

And don't forget the $200,000.00+ to give the leftover toxic ash a diesel-powered escort to Kettleman City, CA.

Now THAT is boondogglicious!

Like this comment
Posted by No on E. No to peter and alex.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I see that the misrepresentation campaign for measure e is in high gear. Alex claims that the measure will cost us $0. That is a blatant lie. We know that this election will cost us about $300K. Why not wait until there is actually a plan in place and vote for both issues in one election. Of alex and cedric are playing fast and loose with the numbers, we should vote no on drekmeier's folly. Alex and peter, now that is a boondogilicious couple.

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

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