On Deadline: Palo Alto's baylands debate could continue for years, folks | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline: Palo Alto's baylands debate could continue for years, folks

Uploaded: Nov 18, 2011

The future of Palo Alto's vast baylands -- a mix of marshlands, open water, mud and hiking/walking/running trails -- has been debated for decades.

The nearly two-thirds victory of Measure E supporters in early November won't change that dynamic.

Take a deep breath: The debate will continue for years to come, not "months" as surmised in one news article about the vote.

A key element of the debate right now is what the "voter mandate" means.

Was it an approval of a significant composting and energy-generation operation in a low-profile facility that would be partially below grade (with trucks and heavy equipment and their back-up beeps)?

Or is it a mandate only to allow "more study" of whether the 10 acres at issue, directly adjacent to the city's wastewater-treatment plant on the southeast side, could be used for a combination composting and anaerobic digestion facility that would generate electricity.

The digesters would convert yard waste and plant materials mixed with sludge from the adjacent Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, at the end of Embarcadero Road, into methane-gas-generated electricity. The plant, built in 1970, deals with sewage from Palo Alto, Stanford, Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, Mountain View and East Palo Alto.

The sewage sludge presently is incinerated and reduced to ash, which concentrates the components, including some heavy metals, to a degree that the ash becomes classified as hazardous waste, requiring transportation to a hazardous-waste-treatment facility north of Las Vegas. In the late 1970s, it was discovered that the ash pile had in it more gold and silver than the average small gold mine, and the city leased rights to "mine" it (using a complex chemical-extraction process).

It seemed ironic that well-to-do Palo Alto had a gold/silver-laden pile of sewage-ash. But the mini-gold/silver rush is now over. The silver was mainly from the Kodak film-processing operation in Palo Alto's Stanford Research Park, and the gold was mainly from the coating of computer components. Kodak shut down its plant, much of the computer-component manufacturing left town (or the country) and methods improved to recapture the gold before it hit the sewers.

As for the new "mandate," the "more study" interpretation should be a cinch. Palo Alto has a tradition of "more study." It goes back at least as far as the decades-long debate over the baylands. It's one thing that the community and city government -- and school district, too, for that matter -- truly excel at doing.

What's missing in this vote (as is usual in any this-or-that election) is a base of accurate, complete information on which the struggling voter or city official (or journalist) can rely. It is the nature of campaigns to generate oversimplified slogans, and cast aspersions on the opposing side. "Aspersions" is a fancy term for slinging mud and calling names, using guilt by innuendo or guilt by association with campaign contributors.

But hey, as a voter being asked to make a judgment on a complex matter, don't BOTH SIDES owe me some measure of truth-telling? Or must we continue the tradition of being fed deceptive, misleading half-truths engineered to evoke a gut-level emotional response rather than a cool intellectual judgment? The local campaign was a pale reflection of the crisis at the national and state levels, a polarization that poisons trust and undermines the political process.

No wonder our democracy is in trouble. The voter turnout was below 30 percent of Palo Alto registered voters, much less if one counted those eligible to vote who aren't registered.

It wasn't as if efforts weren't made to find a collaborative solution, a different site for a composting/power generation operation that wouldn't require taking even 10 acres of dedicated parkland away from the hundreds of acres of baylands park and preserves. But a special panel of citizens -- including Measure E opponent Emily Renzel -- failed to find an acceptable alternative site.

Renzel and longtime friend and mentor Enid Pearson, both former City Council members, opposed any undedication with the same dedication they have each shown for decades in preserving the baylands and slowing growth. Part of their concern was that undedicating the 10 acres would set a precedent for some other project deemed worthy enough to sacrifice dedicated land elsewhere.

Some history may help explain their tenacity.

Dedicating parklands was a hard-fought battle in the early 1960s, when City Council members showed a receptiveness to ideas to use city parks and open spaces for building projects. Pearson and others pleaded with the council to dedicate parks. After being rebuffed, somewhat rudely, Pearson and other "residentialists" mounted an initiative-petition effort that resulted in the city's park-dedication ordinance of 1965 -- still in effect as a powerful deterrent.

The election swept Pearson onto the City Council, along with former state Senator Byron Sher, creating a deeply split council comprised of six "residentialists" vs. seven "establishment" candidates that severely crippled local government. The situation led to a bitter all-council election in 1967, scars of which still linger.

Today both Pearson and Renzel have preserves named for them, Pearson in the lower foothills and Renzel in the baylands. But they haven't forgotten those hard and angry days of yore. And they seem convinced that any compromise will weaken the dedication policy by creating a "camel's nose" exception. The concern seems to be that giving a inch will lead to losing a mile someday.

But in this case, other issues came into play. In addition to having to truck hazardous waste to Nevada at a cost of about $300,000 a year, there is the cost of natural gas used to incinerate the sludge, and its "greenhouse gas" emissions, reported as more than $200,000. If anaerobic digestion could produce methane gas to power generators, it could supply the power needs of the entire treatment plant plus some homes and businesses, perhaps.

A proposed private school, the Girls Middle School, was relocated recently from a site near the treatment plant to west of Highway 101 due to concerns about potential health risks to the students and about several hundred parents calling the city to report every smell from the plant.

No one is sure yet about precisely how much savings or electricity could result. Thus the need for "more study."

And during the study time opponents to Measure E will also be at work studying potential rear-guard actions to prevent anything from happening, so the land would go back to parkland in 10 years.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] and [email protected]