Editorial: Parkland initiative merely gives options | April 1, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 1, 2011

Editorial: Parkland initiative merely gives options

November vote will give Palo Alto the chance to consider innovative composting alternatives

Palo Alto residents can be forgiven if they are still trying to sort out why they will be asked to vote this fall on rescinding parkland status of about 10 acres at the city dump before there is agreement on its use.

If voters agree, the 10 acres that was to have become part of Byxbee Park when the landfill closes next year will instead be available, but not committed, for a facility that would process all the city's table scraps and yard clippings, as well as sewage sludge. The process would also create a significant amount of energy, possibly enough to supply 1.2 to 1.5 percent of the city's annual electricity usage.

A favorable vote on the initiative is a necessary step to give the City Council a viable site if a decision is made to build a state-of-the-art composting facility in Palo Alto.

The effort to "undedicate" 10 acres of previously planned parkland, which just qualified for the ballot, has divided the city's environmental community, with one side fervently opposed to taking away parkland for an industrial facility like an anaerobic digester.

Former City Council member Emily Renzel and others have said the current partnership with Mountain View and Sunnyvale to process the city's compost is working just fine, and that a digester on land due to be part of Byxbee Park would interfere with the park's view shed and degrade the experience of visitors.

But many others, led by former Mayor and City Council member Peter Drekmeier, advocate setting aside a small portion of what is now landfill for a facility that could process all of the city's table scraps and yard trimmings, as well as sludge from the nearby sewage plant. By processing the sludge, the city finally would be able to shut down its long-outdated incinerator, an embarrassment for a community that takes so much pride in its environmental policies and accomplishments.

No matter how much the city wants to be green, in the end financial projections and budget constraints are likely to play a major role in whether the compost facility will ever be built. The preliminary findings of a consultant study shows that in its first year of operations a digestion plant would cost ratepayers about $100 a ton to process compost, while it could be shipped away for around $70 a ton. And even though a 30 per cent contingency was included in the digester cost and trucking carried no inflation factor for fuel cost increases, there could be a significant cost premium in the digester option.

At this point, the City Council has not lined up behind any option. At a recent meeting, there was no consensus on whether the digester was the only viable solution. Some members were concerned about cost, and some about the loss of parkland. Others said the digester proposal is a narrow path that may not give the council enough alternatives given new technologies under development.

At the same meeting, members of the public had plenty of suggestions for the consultants, like including "carbon adders" (placing a price on carbon emissions resulting from the process), contingency costs for the export options and the likely costs of replacing the city's generators.

Drekmeier has argued that costs of a digestion plant would be significantly less (up to $38 million per ton) if it was publicly financed and the carbon and contingency costs were added to the trucking alternative over a 20-year period.

Renzel and her supporters believe that the lower cost for shipping compost out of town is a strong argument against building a digester plant.

"Don't ruin Byxbee Park with an industrial anaerobic digester," she told the council. "It makes no sense for every small city to make massive capital improvements rather than recognizing economies of scale regionally."

That may be true, but many Palo Alto residents are concerned about continuing to fill faraway landfills if there is a viable, though potentially expensive, solution that could contain most of the city's waste at home, including sewage sludge, and even generate some electricity. The question is whether enough voters will be willing to give up a slice of potential parkland to make it possible.

Anaerobic digester plants are installed at many locations in Europe, where it is worth the extra cost to dispose of waste due to a lack of landfill sites. A similar trend is likely to begin in this country, as cities find it is more and more expensive to truck their garbage to landfills many miles away.

The issue will be before the public often in the coming months. After spending four hours on the subject March 21, the council plans to continue the discussion next week, and has promised to give staff more direction. Then in June, staff members and the consultants are scheduled to present a feasibility study and will release the final version in the fall.

In the ideal world, the pros and cons of building a facility will be well identified and studied prior to the November election. But in any case, passage of the initiative to undedicate 10 acres next to the sewage treatment plant should not be viewed as an endorsement of a particular strategy but merely as a vote to create the option of moving forward when and if agreement is reached on the best path forward.


Posted by registered user, Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I appreciate the wisdom shown by the editorial staff, primarily that the initiative will maintain options for managing our organics.

Yesterday (3/31) at Stanford the university's environmental engineering staff spoke of their long-term vision of technology for the water pollution control plant. The session was part of the City's master plan process for the water pollution control facility. Stanford pointed to transitioning our waste water processes to more energy efficient technologies that could generate energy rather than consume. The technologies would incorporate anaerobic rather than aerobic treatment of the sewage. Drs. McCarty and Criddle are international experts and brought their experiences to inform the planning process. Broadly their comments validated the course that would locally manage these organic residuals. I appreciate our city staff seeking their counsel.

The need for the land the initiative asks was also supported from yet another perspective. As the technology of wastewater modernizes, and the aging components will be replaced, but the wastewater will never cease. Therefore the renewed water pollution control plant would need to be built carefully, and would stress the available property. Therefore, having the land the initiative would authorize fits well with additional constraints that may come to the water pollution control plant.

I also was pleased to hear that the technology and science is being discussed at Paly's AP Environmental class. Having our community consider these new technologies is already spilling to the classroom as our students get enlightened about applied-biology. Having the City move towards the new strategies will have a trickle-down by also helping our students with contextual learning.

Thank you again for this encouraging and well worded editorial.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 2, 2011 at 12:26 pm

"I also was pleased to hear that the technology and science is being discussed at Paly's AP Environmental class."

Really? Does mean that plasma arc is being discussed, as being far superior to anaerobic digestion (AD)? Or does the curriculum (fallaciously) describe plasma arc as incineration, as you do Bob? If so, it is not education, it is propaganda...and a big lie.

Environmental science should be based on science, not a "zero waste" political agenda. It is serious business, and it should be treated seriously. I hope that our City Council will look at realistic 'best practices', and avoid drinking the AD kool aid.

BTW, where is Peter D. in this debate (where is Waldo?)? Surely, he must be able to distinguish between plasma arc and incineration.

Posted by More about $, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 2, 2011 at 1:01 pm

The election will cost over $350,000. The story should have mentioned the correct amount.

Posted by Emily Renzel, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 5, 2011 at 11:48 am

Your ambiguous editorial on the Park Undedication Initiative (April 1) seems to suggest that it’s okay to undedicate parkland so that some future council can “have the option of moving forward ...if agreement is reached...” on the use.

If any City Council were convinced that use of parkland was needed for a particularly compelling use, it could put the matter to the voters with full disclosure of the purpose as was done with the Winter Lodge Exchange, for example. In this case, voters are being asked to buy a Pig in a Poke by undedicating parkland without a clear plan for its use.

Parkland is either dedicated or not. It cannot be “conditionally” undedicated as is suggested by the Initiative. The land will be just like any other land in Palo Alto and you can be sure that Public Works or some other city department will want to make use of it rather than return it to park dedication in the future. There is no automatic reversion to park dedication if the goals of the Initiative are not achieved.

This latest theme of “creating an option” to use parkland has only surfaced since the unfavorable financial analysis of dry anaerobic digestion. This process has already cost the Refuse Fund about $2 million and will cost millions more if the Industrial Anaerobic Digestion facility is built. Go to <savethebaylands.org> to see how AD’s look.

Voters should reject this Initiative.

Posted by Resident 0.1, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I agree that voters should reject this initiative.

First we need to confront the big lie that population in the Bay Area has to grow (and large development has to continue) in order for residents to prosper. ABAG is supporting failed policy. I've lived in the Bay Area for 60 years and have watched the growth. Where is the prosperity? In the hands of a few.

We need to keep our dedicated parkland. A water polution control plant needs to serve the region, not only Palo Alto and should not be located in Palo Alto. The people who support the use of dedicated parkland are the same people who believe that development and increased population can continue indefinitely. This is not true. It is true that these people make a great deal of money out of unlimited growth.

There is a period in which economic growth, conventionally understood or no, brings about an improvement of the quality of life. But only up to a point, the threshold point, beyond which, if there is more growth, quality of life begins to decline. And that is the situation in which we are now.

No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services. The economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible. And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above life-sustaining ecosystems.

We should not vote for infrastructure growth and as a result increased taxes, overcrowded schools and congested streets. We need to reject over use of land in Palo Alto.