History of Measure E

Location, Adjoining Areas, and Prior Use. The "Measure E site" - which derives its name from a ballot measure passed by voters in 2011 as described further in the next section - is a 10-acre parcel owned by the City of Palo Alto that is part of the approximately 1,940 acres of marshland known as the Baylands. Portions of the Baylands have been developed over time for municipal services, including a sewage treatment plant, an airport, and a golf course, as well as parkland. The City also previously operated a garbage dump or landfill in the Baylands, which at its largest covered 126 acres.

In 1965, pursuant to ballot initiative, Palo Alto voters approved what is known as the "Parkland Charter Amendment." Its purpose was to provide voters the opportunity to approve or disapprove proposals to change permitted uses of parklands. The Palo Alto City Council then dedicated the bulk of the Baylands as parkland, which became Byxbee Park. The designation excluded areas planned to be used for non- park, municipal purposes. Because the dump was expected to shut down soon after, that area was designated to be converted to parkland. However, the dump did not close as anticipated, but remained open for decades. Additionally, in 1977, a composting operation was established on part of the dump grounds, encompassing about 7.5 acres by 2011. The compost operations converted approximately 21,000 tons of locally-produced green waste into compost each year.

In 1991, the City partnered with Sunnyvale and Mountain View to begin sending almost all of its refuse to a Sunnyvale facility for sorting and then transport to a landfill in San Jose for disposal. In 2011, the last remaining section of the Palo Alto dump reached capacity, so the City stopped accepting refuse, as well as green waste for composting. Since then, Palo Alto's food and yard waste has also been trucked to the South Bay.

The Measure E site is adjacent to the sewage treatment plant, which remains in the Baylands. The plant processes wastewater and sewage generated by Palo Alto and four other cities, plus Stanford. From 1972 to 2019, the City incinerated the sewage sludge and, after disinfection and other treatment, discharged it into the Bay. In light of outcry over the associated greenhouse gas emissions, hazardous waste stream, and energy costs, in 2019, the City replaced the incinerator plant with the 10,000-square- foot Sludge Dewatering and Loadout facility. There, sludge is dewatered, thickened, pressed, caked, and loaded into trucks that take it elsewhere for further treatment, and then it is ultimately converted for use in farming areas, primarily in the Central Valley. This facility is a concrete cube with two stories packed with pipes, filters, conveyor belts, and storage vats. The Measure E site serves as a buffer between the plant and Byxbee Park.

Consideration of Alternate Uses for the Dump Area and the Measure E Initiative. As plans were evolving to close compost operations in the dump, and concerns about sewage sludge incineration were increasing, the City began analyzing how it could process its yard clippings, food scraps, and sewage in an environmentally-friendly way. A blue-ribbon task force of community experts was formed to explore options for handling all three waste streams. The task force recommended anaerobic digestion (AD), a process that uses microorganisms in an oxygen-free environment to break down organic waste into renewable biogas and compost.

The City then commissioned a feasibility study to assess the benefits and challenges of building an AD facility. The study, published in August 2011, included several scenarios for developing a dry AD facility next to the then-existing sewage incineration plant. The AD facility as envisioned would convert food scraps, yard trimmings, and potentially sewage to renewable energy (electricity or fuels) and useable compost. The study compared the economic and environmental costs of an AD facility versus those to pay third parties to truck, process, and dispose of Palo Alto's green waste in the South Bay and continue to incinerate sewage. It concluded that the right AD facility could potentially save the City more than $30 million over its first 20 years, while also emitting fewer greenhouse gases and producing local renewable energy and compost.

While the study's conclusions were encouraging, further analyses and actions were needed. However, under the Parkland Charter Amendment, the composting site was slated to convert to parkland well before the additional work could be completed. Therefore, community members concerned about forfeiting the City's ability to ever process its own green waste again - as well as related climate change impacts - organized to secure voter approval of what became known as "Measure E."

Measure E asked voters whether 10 acres of the 126-acre landfill site should "be removed from dedication as parkland, for the exclusive purpose of building a facility for converting yard trimmings, food waste, other municipal organics and/or sewage sludge from the regional wastewater treatment plant by biological and/or other environmentally equally protective technology. While the effect of the initiative was to permit a compost facility on the site, it did not require one to be built. Measure E further provided that 10 years from passage, the City Council could rededicate any portion of the property to parkland if not used for a waste processing facility.

Measure E passed in November 2011, receiving nearly 65% voter approval. The Measure E site - which spans about .5% of the Baylands area - remains undeveloped.