The brown and dusty expanse of barren land next to Palo Alto's water-treatment plant looks like an unlikely setting for the next major battle in the city's Green Civil War.
It's not exactly a "dump" and it's not exactly a "park," though there are plenty of local environmentalists who would use these terms to describe the most controversial 10 acres in Palo Alto. But the argument over what to call this lumpy section of the Baylands is but a small, semantic quibble in the furious debate over the land's future -- a debate that will climax on Nov. 8 when residents walk into voting booths to consider Measure E.
The measure, which was put on the ballot by one of two competing environmental coalitions, asks a simple question with implications so complex that almost no one fully understands them: "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?"
The question has caused much head scratching among the local populace. Aside from the technical uncertainties surrounding the new facility -- including its costs, the technology it would employ and its impact on the environment -- the dilemma has opened up the larger question of what it means to be "green." The city's green community has split over Measure E, with former longtime allies asserting diametrically opposed viewpoints. Some of Palo Alto's greenest citizens are calling for the city to honor its promise to convert this land to parkland, while others are pointing to the 10-acre site as the perfect solution to the city's convoluted waste-management dilemma.
The latter camp, which initiated Measure E, specifically calls for the city to consider building an anaerobic digestion plant at the site -- a facility that would process local food scraps, yard trimmings and sewage sludge and convert them into energy. Opponents claim the proposed facility would sully the 126-acre Byxbee Park and set a dangerous precedent for future treatment of parkland. In addition, they say, Palo Alto's food and yard waste are already being efficiently handled in San Jose and Gilroy by the city's waste hauler.
The battle between the two different green camps is far from new, but it has taken on a particular intensity in the months leading up to the election, with each side accusing its opponent of trying to mislead the public. In one corner stand Peter Drekmeier, a former Palo Alto mayor and well-known conservationist who helped organize Palo Alto's first Earth Day two decades ago; Walt Hays, who may be the city's leading champion of sustainable living; and dozens of volunteers who submitted more than 6,000 signatures to the City Clerk in April to qualify the undedication measure for the November ballot. The environmental nonprofit Acterra, which Drekmeier formerly headed, has also endorsed Measure E, along with other organizations.
On the other side are Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, two former council members whose conservationist bona fides are so well established that each has an open-space preserve named after her, as well as a host of park preservationists and land-use watchdogs. The Committee for Green Foothills and the Santa Clara Audubon Society have added their voices to the anti-Measure E campaign, as have former mayors Bern Beecham, Yoriko Kishimoto, Dena Mossar, Judy Kleinberg, all of whom are known for supporting green causes.
"We're all environmentalists, but we just see this a little differently," Kleinberg said in a recent interview, when asked about the split over Measure E.
Renzel has fought this battle before. For decades, she has been an outspoken critic of any city proposal that threatened to shrink or degrade the city's open space preserve. In the early 1990s, she supported the creation of a Utilities Advisory Commission to oversee the Utilities Department. According to Ward Winslow's "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," Renzel emerged as a leading critic of the Utilities Department.
"Palo Alto has been exporting huge environmental problems for years," Renzel is quoted as saying. To back up this claim, she cited such activities as "slashing through forests" to build transmission lines, sharing in a dam project and exporting garbage.
Now, ironically, she finds herself arguing in favor of the "export" options for local trash because the alternative would infringe upon Palo Alto's open space.
"Once undedicated, parkland is gone forever, and you will have little to say about how it's being used," Renzel said at an Oct. 11 debate on Measure E.
Renzel and her camp also stood firm on parkland preservation in 2005, the last time the two green camps clashed. At that time, an "Environmental Services Center" -- including in its largest proposed form services such as materials recovery, refuse transfer, composting, recycling, hazardous waste and public education -- would have occupied up to 19 acres in the Baylands.
The conservationist side prevailed, after the council voted 5-4 to defeat the proposal.
Renzel is far from the only prominent Palo Altan making the argument that parkland, in general, should not be touched, even for reasons as ostensibly "green" as a waste-to-energy facility. The anti-Measure E movement is made up of people and organizations that emerged in the middle of the 20th century to challenge Palo Alto's development boom. Chief among them is Pearson, the Palo Altan most responsible for the fact that the parkland is dedicated in the first place.
As the leader of the "residentialist" movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Pearson was the leading force behind the city's decision in 1965 to create a park-dedication ordinance (an ordinance that requires a vote of the people to convert parkland to other uses). According to Winslow's history of Palo Alto, she pursued the ordinance after "one small informal park on the old Sherman School block and part of the city's Bowden Park vanished" during the development boom of the 1950s. Her successful initiative propelled her to the council in 1965, the same year that the Audubon Society proposed creating a larger wildlife preserve in the Baylands.
Pearson's commitment to protecting the Bay from new developments remains strong. Like Renzel, she has repeatedly questioned the financial benefits of the waste-to-energy facility touted by the pro-Measure E side and argued against using the park for composting.
"Even here, in Palo Alto, some people want to destroy 10 acres of Byxbee Park," Pearson told the council on Oct. 3. "Enlightened Palo Alto ought to be doing all it can to find and save land for parks. There is no justification for grabbing park land to construct a huge factory that is based on great expectations."
Other organizations that emerged out of the mid-century conservation movement have also come out swinging against Measure E. The Committee for Green Foothills, which was founded in 1962 and which claimed the author Wallace Stegner as its first president, last month took an official stance against the proposal to undedicate the land. Jennifer Couperus, who serves on the committee's board of directors, told the council last month that the board decided to oppose the measure because it felt the loss of open space is not justified by the prospect of "unproved composting techniques."
The Santa Clara County Audubon Society, which according to Winslow's history has been eyeing the baylands for a bird sanctuary since 1923, has been even more adamant in its opposition to the measure. Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate for the Audubon Society, joined Renzel in the Oct. 11 debate over the measure. Undedicating the parkland, she said, is not only a drastic measure but a premature one, given that the city hasn't fully analyzed the impacts the proposed facility would have.
Kleinhaus also rejected the argument by the proponents of Measure E that the land in question makes up only 8 percent of the park.
"If I ask you to take the nose of your face because it's a 'minute' part of your body, you'd probably say no," Kleinhaus said at the debate.
Former council members have also held fast to their specific environmental philosophies. Kleinberg, a former president of the Committee for Green Foothills who was one of the five council members to vote against the Environmental Services Center, hasn't swerved from her commitment to protecting the Bay from development.
"We've worked so hard to reclaim our bayfronts," Kleinberg said. "To undedicate parkland at the bayfronts seems to be so backwards and anachronistic, I can't believe we're not all up in arms about it."
For Renzel, the Baylands in her mind's eye will never include what she derisively terms "a factory." In July, just weeks before the landfill was scheduled to close for good, she and other nature lovers took a victory lap around a portion of the site and spoke in hopeful tones about the landfill's impending conversion to "the wonderful prairie that once existed," as Mayor Sid Espinosa put it.
From Walt Hays' point of view, opponents' fears about developments encroaching on the Baylands are both unfounded and exaggerated.
"There are some people who believe that parks are so sacred you cannot touch them," Hays told the Weekly in a recent interview. "Some people feel that when you undedicate it once, it can be an entering wedge and you can do it again."
"Frankly, if someone wanted to undedicate parkland and put, say, a fire station, I'd be on Emily's side."
For Hays, who led the Measure E drive, the issue is straightforward: The city needs to take care of its own waste, not ship it to another community. He is quick to point out that the measure would not commit the city to building anything -- merely give the council the option to consider a facility that, he says, would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Though he likes parkland as much as his opponents, the times have changed since 1965, he said, and the city has a duty to address the growing threat of global warming.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Hays said, referring to the 1965 dedication of parkland, including the eventual conversion and addition of the dump to Byxbee Park. "But that was before anyone has ever heard of the issue of climate change.
"Since that time, climate change is recognized as the most serious threat faced by humanity."
Hays is the leading player in Palo Alto's robust "sustainability" movement, which emerged in the 1990s and has been ballooning since. He has been talking about climate change and "zero waste" long before the City Council began adopting "environmental sustainability" as an official priority year after year.
As the co-chair of the Zero Waste Task Force in 2005, he helped formulate the city's ambitious goal of diverting almost all of its waste from landfills by 2025 through recycling and other green practices. The following year, he chaired then-Mayor Kleinberg's Green Ribbon Task Force, which was charged with finding ways to reduce the city's greenhouse-gas emissions. Proposed solutions included providing incentives for employees to carpooling and adding green-building code standards to the city's building code -- a policy Palo Alto adopted in 2008.
Hays' commitment to sustainability had pitted him against the conservationists before. In the past decade, he was a leading advocate of building the "Environmental Services Center," which created a firestorm within the green community not unlike the present argument over Measure E.
This time, Hays' side is confident it will have better luck. His coalition, the Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative, has been swelling and gathering a long list of endorsements in the months leading up to the November election. The CLEAN Coalition, the Green Party of Santa Clara County, the Silicon Valley Action Network and the Santa Clara County Democratic Party have all endorsed Measure E, as has Acterra. In its endorsement statement, Acterra noted that "balancing the goals of stopping climate change with preserving open space has put many environmental friends on different sides of this issue" but concluded that a "composting facility adjacent to the water-treatment plant could provide greater environmental benefits -- particularly reducing Palo Alto's carbon footprint -- than leaving the proposed ten-acre site as dedicated parkland."
Members of the "sustainability" camp -- which includes council members Larry Klein, Pat Burt and Gail Price and a host of former elected officials -- are quick to point out that the proposal wouldn't require the city to build anything but merely allow the city to continue evaluating its options.
"Just because it's undedicated doesn't mean they have to build it," said Ellen Fletcher, a former vice mayor who is supporting Measure E. "It'll still be up to the council and the public to go through the studies that will be commissioned and see what the alternatives are.
"If none work out, the council can still rededicate the land, so there's nothing lost."
The measure aims to settle what Drekmeier calls the city's "chicken-and-egg" dilemma. The city would have to complete an Environmental Impact Report before any major facility is constructed. But city officials would be loath to commit millions of dollars for such a study when there is no land available for the proposed facility; a much smaller "feasibility study" was approved after heavy debate and a 5-4 council vote. At the same time, opponents of Measure E insist that the land not be undedicated until there is further proof that such a facility would be feasible -- proof that could only be furbished through a full environmental analysis.
"People talk about this as a green-versus-green issue," Drekmeier said at last week's debate over Measure E. "Perhaps it is park-advocate environmentalists and sustainability environmentalists.
"I have a 2-year-old son," he added. "His life will be so different than mine. He has such huge challenges. The times have changed, and we have to address our waste."
The deep split between the two environmental camps has prompted a period of soul-searching among the city's greenest residents. Should one align oneself with Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the traditional bible of the nature lover, or with Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded," a manifesto that seeks to shake America out of its climate-change apathy (Drekmeier and Klein felt so strongly about the latter that they sponsored a special City Hall screening in 2009 of Friedman's talk about the book).
Though neither side in the debate is a monolithic bloc, each has common threads running through it. Not surprisingly, proponents of Measure E tend to be in the Friedman camp. They are, in most cases, more accepting toward emerging technologies and, in many cases, more tolerant of new development. The measure has received financial support and endorsements from the city's leading developers, including Jim Baer and Chop Keenan. Jonathan Foster, who chairs the city's Utilities Advisory Commission, is supporting the campaign, as is Bob Wenzlau, who pioneered the city's curbside-recycling program.
Opponents tend to be more cautious about new development. The group includes land-use watchdogs Robert Moss, Thomas Jordan and Winter Dellenbach, as well as Susan Fineberg, vice chair of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission who is known as a cautious guardian of the city's Comprehensive Plan. Councilwoman Karen Holman, a veteran of the planning commission, opposes Measure E, as do Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilman Greg Schmid.
The tension between the two green camps probably won't end with Measure E, particularly if the measure passes. The two camps have squabbled incessantly over the feasibility study for the new facility, with each side using numbers from the study to back its point of view. If voters undedicate the land and the council proceeds with further analysis, the debate will undoubtedly escalate. If they reject Measure E, the debate will likely abate at least for a little while -- at least until someone comes up with another proposal to build something with environmental benefits in the Baylands.
"My sense is that when we go to the voters -- if they choose not to undedicate it, the discussion ends," Councilman Greg Scharff said during a meeting in April. "If they do -- that's the beginning of the discussion, frankly."