Palo Alto voters made a strong statement in favor of keeping composting local Tuesday night when they passed Measure E, allowing a section of the city's Baylands to be used for a waste-to-energy operation.
In an election that pit two environmentalist coalitions against one another, the "sustainability" crowd scored a victory over park conservationists when 64 percent of the voters cast their ballot in favor of Measure E, which undedicates a 10-acre parcel of Byxbee Park to enable construction of an anaerobic digestion facility.
Opponents of Measure E, a coalition of preservationists led by former Councilmembers Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, argued that the proposed plant does not belong in the Baylands.
The initiative, which was spearheaded by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, zero-waste activist Walt Hays,and a coalition of local environmentalists, does not settle the green-versus-green dispute, which is sure to continue for many months to come. It also doesn't authorize the new plant, whose financial viability remains debatable. What it does do is give the City Council a new option in the complicated and deeply passionate debate over the future of the city's waste operation.
"I think the voters want a facility that's cost effective and that improves the environment," Drekmeier said shortly after early results were posted, showing his side winning 64 to 36 percent.
The margin of victory held up, with 7,713 votes in favor and 4,267 against by evening's end. Elaine Larson with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters said there are between 9,000 and 10,000 absentee and provisional ballots left to count in the county, and Larson estimated that roughly 2,000 of those are from Palo Alto. She said updates will be released Wednesday and Thursday. Larson expected well over 90 percent of those absentee and provisional ballots would be counted before the three-day weekend.
Bob Wenzlau, who pioneered the city's curbside-recycling program and who co-wrote the initiative, said he was heartened by the election result.
"The only question now is how to get this thing built and how to get the City Council around to the will of the voters," Wenzlau said.
City officials have been wrestling with the dilemma of what to do about the city's compost for more than two years and, Measure E's passage notwithstanding, remain far from a resolution. The debate was prompted by the July closure of the city's landfill at Byxbee Park -- the former site of the city's compost operation. The landfill's closure means the city has to ship its compost to Gilroy. While park preservationists see this as a viable regional solution to the city's waste problems, other environmentalists view it as a slap in the face for a city that champions "zero waste" and reduction of carbon emissions.
A new waste facility would convert local yard trimmings and food scraps into energy. The measure had received endorsements from a wide range of environmental groups, including Acterra and the Green Party of Santa Clara County.
Dozens of Measure E supporters gathered at the home of Michael Santullo to await election results and celebrate victory. Carolyn Curtis, a volunteer who led the petition drive to get Measure E on the ballot, said the early results confirmed what she's been hearing during the signature-gathering effort.
"People don't like the idea of shipping their waste and having someone else take care of it," Curtis said.
Drekmeier hailed the pending passage of Measure E as a huge step toward building the new plant and keeping composting local. He said he was heartened by a recent feasibility study that the council funded. The study showed that under certain conditions, a local facility could be cheaper than exporting yard trimmings and waste to the southern part of the county.
"What we learned from the feasibility study is that we can do it," Drekmeier said. "We can save money and help the environment.
"I think we will look back on this as the most important phase in this process," he said.
Sunny Dykwel, a Parks and Recreation commissioner and Measure E supporter, said the new plant, if built, would both help the environment and showcase Palo Alto's clean-tech leadership.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Dykwel said. "And this is just a half of 1 percent of the park."
Park conservationists were less sanguine about the measure's passage. Over the past year, they had persistently argued that building a waste facility in the Baylands would betray a promise the city had made to its voters more than four decades ago to convert the land to parkland when the landfill closes. Several environmental groups, including the Committee for Green Foothills and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, had also come out against Measure E.
"I think the proponents will be happy for a very short time and the opponents will be disappointed for a very short time," said Bob Power, executive director of the Audubon Society. "Very soon, the (city's) planning department will find itself involved in a project that is non-existent at a cost that is incomprehensible."
The fight between the two green camps is expected to continue for many months. Renzel said there are a "million steps we can do" in the fight to save the 10 acres of parkland. She said using the site would require the city to remove about 9 acres of garbage that was buried at the site.
"That would mean 3.5 million cubic feet of garbage would have to be moved into the existing 42 acres of the park," said Renzel, who joined opponents of Measure E at the home of Enid Pearson. "It's very complex. They will need to get state approval for doing the landfill."
"We haven't lost yet -- until the fat lady sings," Renzel said.