Editorial: Put compost proposal to a citywide vote | April 2, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 2, 2010

Editorial: Put compost proposal to a citywide vote

At issue is whether an 'anaerobic digestion' composting operation makes enough environmental and economic sense to undedicate 8 acres of parkland

Another "only in Palo Alto" kind of political debate comes before the City Council Monday night, one that promises to divide environmentalists and confuse many others.

At issue is whether the value of having a new-technology, local composting system outweighs the loss of 8 acres of dedicated parkland adjacent to the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant at the end of Embarcadero Road.

As outlined in pro-and-con opinion columns in last week's Weekly (available on www.PaloAltoOnline.com), the plan would use a system called "anaerobic digestion" to compost yard wastes, food scraps and sewage sludge in airtight containers that would produce methane gas and enough electricity to power up to 1,400 homes, according to staff estimates. The technology is used in Europe but not yet in the United States.

The catch is that after an extensive search for sites, a special task force of citizens — some with significant expertise in composting — concluded that there are no feasible sites. They ruled out the parkland site by the sewage plant because of political opposition expected due to the 1965 Park Dedication Ordinance and a later designation of the city's landfill area as future parkland — including the area presently used for recycling and composting immediately south of the sewage plant.

The current proposal envisions using 8 to 10 acres, not the larger existing composting site. About half the site would be under a "green roof" covered with native grasses, enclosing much of the composting operation.

The proposed technology would mix yard clippings with commercial and domestic food scraps to create compost for home use, and with sludge from the sewage plant for compost for commercial use. The sludge currently is incinerated at a cost of about $800,000 a year plus about $240,000 to transport it to a disposal site in the Central Valley.

Anaerobic means that the compost produces methane gas, which can be used to produce enough electricity to operate the sewage treatment plant and provide power to homes. Revenues would be expected from fees from people bringing material to the center and sales of power.

The impacts of the operation could be significant in terms of truck traffic and noise that might intrude on areas of the surrounding Byxbee Park, some potential visual impacts, and loss of about 9 percent of the future park. Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel is a vigorous opponent of any loss of dedicated parkland.

This proposal is vastly different than the ill-conceived Environmental Services Center plan of several years ago, which involved a huge building on a substantially larger site.

Proponents of the composting plan, chiefly former City Council member and Mayor Peter Drekmeier, argue that in this case the economic and environmental benefits outweigh the value of the parkland that would be lost. They note that keeping the operation local would save people from making trips to Sunnyvale to deliver materials or retrieve compost.

They say some revenues and savings from the operation could expedite development of other parts of Byxbee Park, for which no funds presently are allocated or available. The city faces a huge and growing budget shortfall, in addition to a half billion dollars in unfunded capital-improvement projects, they correctly point out.

Some are discussing conducting an initiative-petition drive to place the matter on the November ballot. An alternative is for the City Council to assert its leadership and place it on the ballot. An initiative drive would need more than 4,356 signatures for the Nov. 8 election, or 2,178 signatures for a regular city election next year. An initiative would not require that an environmental-impact study be done prior to the election, whereas an environmental study would need to be done if the council placed it on the ballot.

Either alternative is better than being scared off by the need for voter approval to undedicated the 8 to 10 acres being discussed.

But we do not believe voters should be asked to decide an issue of this importance without a full, clear understanding of the impacts and potential benefits of the operation that an environmental-impact study would delineate.

The Park Dedication Ordinance is an important safeguard for citizens to protect their parklands, but it should not block consideration of a potential innovative composting facility that may have both significant environmental and economic benefits for the community.


Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 2, 2010 at 1:57 am

Kudos to the Weekly for this excellent editorial! It says it ALL, especially the last paragraph. I urge the City Council to be proactive about adapting parkland to this new "green" innovation and opportunity.

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Posted by Susan Stansbury
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 2, 2010 at 10:10 am

A small investment up front can save the city millions of dollars in the long run while reducing our greenhouse gas footprint by 2-5%. It will send a strong message to our children that our community is responding to the issues of our time.

I am grateful and appreciative of Emily Renzel, Enid Pearson and others who had the vision and dedication to save some of Palo Alto's most valuable land as parks. The landfill, which is on dedicated parkland has been a sore point for them for decades. We can some of the revenues generated from the compost facility used to convert the landfill to a park, and create a win-win solution.

Let's get the information we need through a feasibility study and an EIR, and let the people make an informed decision.

Like this comment
Posted by KenN
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 2, 2010 at 10:55 am

Palo Alto must do what it can to minimize costs today and into the future. A digester could save the city $1-2 million per year at today's energy and landfill prices. With oil and landfill prices sure to rise in the next 10-20 years, the long term savings will be even higher. The enviromental advantages are a big plus as well, since someday the California AB32 law (or a federal carbon law) will probably force us to pay even more for shipping our waste around. Can we save money today and avoid hikes tomorrow?

The only objection is parkland. This is important; but in this case it's a minor issue. The digester would not impact today's 26-acre Byxbee park. It would only reduce the future Byxbee park expansion when the dump closes, from a total of 126 acres to 121 acres. It's a tiny reduction in a park that doesn't even exist yet.

Based on what has been proposed and what's been done elsewhere, it's certainly worth pursuing. I hope the council will go forward with a feasability study.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert D. Frost
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

I agree with and support the comments made by Carroll Harrington and Susan Stanbury. I urge the City Council to act by ordering a feasibility study.

Like this comment
Posted by Bryan Long
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

I appreciate that it must be frustrating to those who have held a dream for forty years of a Mtn. View Shoreline-style park on the site of the current landfill, but environmental and economic realities are different now. Palo Alto's boom years are probably behind us for good, landfil disposal and energy costs are rising, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a top environmental priority. Anaerobic digestion has been deployed for two decades in Europe for mixed waste streams, and in the US for sewage waste. With rising energy, transportation and land costs, along with environmental costs, anaerobic digestion offers a clean way to recycle the value in organic wastes into our ecosystem and economy. With savings of more than $1 Million per year available, City Council needs to vote NO on the staff recommendation to do nothing and instead instruct City Staff to get serious about this possibility rather than proceed slowly on a multi-year planning process to consider replacing our horribly expensive sludge incinerator. In just a couple of weeks, the citizens group pagreenenergy.org has collected well over 200 signatures of Palo Alto residents on an open letter to City Council urging a full feasibility study.

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Posted by Brandy Faulkner
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2010 at 11:56 am

Agreed with all, though I'd like to make a small correction: anaerobic digestion DOES currently exist in the US. Many dairy farms use it. Europe, correctly, has been using it for much longer. Ironically, the revenue from taking care of our own waste "in-house" may actually serve our parkland better than the alternative. This includes Byxbee park, which presently does not have the funds to be completed. My full support for a feasibility study is given. Kudos to the Weekly for this editorial.

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Posted by JW
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 2, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I agree that our compostables should not be driven down to Gilroy for process; however there are problems with locating an anaerobic digestion facility at the Baylands.

The Baylands do not belong to Palo Alto, they belongs to the State of California. It is the State Land Commission that leases the land to Palo Alto. I guess the legal status of Byxbee Park needs to be resolved with the State before the City can place an anaerobic digestion facility there.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2010 at 1:15 pm

"This proposal is vastly different than the ill-conceived Environmental Services Center plan of several years ago, which involved a huge building on a substantially larger site."

Is it really so different? Was the ESC really ill-conceived?

The ESC proposal included 4 possible site sizes: 6.2 acres, 8 acres, 13.7 acres, and 19 acres. Here is the CMR from February, 14, 2005: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by CHinCider
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Thanks, "Parent"! It's ironically funny how things come full circle in the Palo Alto "process". This very editorial column slammed the prior proposal. I guess it just takes some people longer than others to stop living in the past and realize what the future holds and needs.

Like this comment
Posted by Lawrence
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Clearly, a feasible site HAS been identified by the Compost Task Force.

A city sponsored feasibility study would give the voters of Palo Alto the knowledge to make an informed decision as to whether to undedicate a small fraction of future Byxbee parkland to embark on a project that promises to make the future a brighter and more livable place for our children and grandchildren.

As far as the opposition to this forward thinking, yet common sense proposal, I'm afraid we're experiencing a Not In My Back Yard phenomena. It really is time for us to step into full responsibility for properly recycling the waste we create. I believe there will be a time when transportation fuel prices will skyrocket, much more food production will be done on a local level, and a comfortable standard of living will be predicated on a nearby source of compost.

As far as the technology goes, Wet Anaerobic Digestion is common throughout the world, including the USA, for processing animal and other wastes. And Dry Anaerobic Digestion is the wave of the future. We are decades behind Europe in at least this latter technology. Check out

Web Link

Web Link

I am hoping that City Council will move ahead with a feasibility study and maintain the current moratorium on additional waste being taken to the landfill, as it would be a real shame (and pretty expensive!) to have to move it again when we finally do build this waste to energy and compost plant at some point in Palo Alto's future.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette Isaacson
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Thank you to the editorial staff of the Weekly for a thorough and fair analysis of whether Palo Alto City Council should proceed with a feasibility study for locating an Anaerobic Digestion Plant on 8 acres of the dump. Once the feasibility study is completed, Palo Alto voters will be able to decide whether the plant or the 8 acres of park land is more beneficial to our city. I urge the City Council to commission a feasibilty study. It is the right thing to do.

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