Council members voted 7 to 2 (Karen Holman and Greg Schmid opposed) to ask county and state regulatory agencies for permission to defer capping of the landfill at the end of Embarcadero Road, a process that would keep methane gas and other pollutants from escaping. Instead, the land at Byxbee Park is to remain untouched until the council can fully explore the idea of building a composting plant there.
The city could be in violation of state law if it does not cap the landfill and does not succeed in convincing regulators to grant a 16-month extension. Those regulatory agencies include the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health and state agencies CalRecycle and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Violations could cost the city up to $10,000 per day in fines, city staff said.
Mindful of that, council members also directed staff to explore options for legal or legislative action, should regulators deny the city's request for an extension of at least 16 months.
In postponing the landfill capping, council members said they want to preserve Palo Alto voters' 2011 direction, given in Measure E, to set aside up to 10 acres of the parkland for a plant that would create energy from the city's compostable waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings.
"I believe the vote gave us marching orders ... and we need to take every step we can to preserve this 10 acres," Councilman Larry Klein said.
By its vote Monday night, the council opted not to follow the staff's recommendation to cap 34 acres out of the 51 this summer and fall. The remaining 17 would have been large enough to accommodate a 5-acre composting plant.
City staff said that the regulatory agencies have indicated they might not allow removal of the soil covering the landfill once it is in place because it would disturb the area, a factor that council members weighed in their deliberations.
Cost was also a serious consideration among council members. Removing and reconstructing the cap as part of construction of a composting plant could cost up to $3 million, staff noted.
"The cost related to capping or removing the cap later is so significant that it seems appropriate to defer action for this time," Councilwoman Gail Price said.
The landfill closed in the summer of 2011, but the property at the end of Embarcadero has been a source of controversy. Many conservationists want the city to cap the landfill and return the acreage to public parkland as had been planned decades ago.
Former councilwoman Emily Renzel, who opposes a new composting facility, urged the council to cap all 51 acres now and open up the parkland. Delaying would be a violation of the public trust, she said.
"Fifty years after the land has been dedicated, Palo Alto has not been very green with respect to Byxbee Park," she said.
The landfill site previously housed the city's composting operation. Now, yard waste is trucked south and ends up at a facility in Gilroy. Measure E supporters fought to have the 10-acre section of landfill set aside for a new composting plant.
Councilwoman Karen Holman, in offering her dissenting opinion, said that voters only approved setting aside 10 acres, not 51, in approving Measure E.
But former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who spearheaded the Measure E campaign, said that leaving all 51 acres uncapped would keep open the most options for siting and building a waste-to-energy facility.