$50 million Santa Rosa compost facility inches ahead as opposition from neighbors grows

Neighbors of Santa Rosa’s wastewater plant are mounting a campaign against a proposed commercial compost facility, throwing the future of green-waste handling in Sonoma County into further limbo.|

When Greg Eicher and his wife, Gulten Eicher, moved to a quiet stretch of Walker Avenue five years ago, they were ready to embrace a more rural lifestyle there in southwestern Santa Rosa.

They’ve got a heap of homegrown fruits and veggies on offer, raise chickens for fresh eggs and even recently began beekeeping. There’s also a farm cat - Tekir, which is Turkish for striped or tabby cat.

Greg Eicher said they knew they were moving in a few blocks from Santa Rosa’s Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, which handles wastewater for 230,000 residents from Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and portions of unincorporated Sonoma County.

The Eichers occasionally get whiffs of what is treated at the plant. But Eicher said one waste-related facility is enough, and neighbors can’t abide a push by local governments to relocate a commercial-grade composting facility across the street from the Laguna site.

“This neighborhood has been putting up with the noise and the smell and the traffic - to the benefit of the entire city of Santa Rosa - for years,” Eicher said. “You’re doubling down on me.”

There’s no organized opposition yet, but thanks to leadership changes and the fits and starts of governmental negotiations for green-bin waste, neighbors have months, if not years, to coalesce and build their campaign against the proposal.

Until then, and perhaps for many more years, the future of green waste handling in Sonoma County will remain in limbo - with both tons of material and millions of ratepayer dollars continuing to go out of the county.

It’s been more than a year since the board of Zero Waste Sonoma - the renamed Sonoma County Waste Management Agency - voted to begin negotiations with Renewable Sonoma, a private company, to handle commercial-grade composting operations, a service not offered in Sonoma County since that company’s previous site was shut down four years ago in the wake of wastewater violations.

Renewable Sonoma’s predecessor, Sonoma Compost, located at the county landfill west of Cotati, was accused in a Clean Water Act lawsuit of polluting Stemple Creek for years. The lawsuit cost ratepayers more than $1.1 million, including more than $800,000 in legal fees for the waste management agency and Sonoma County.

Will Bakx, principal at Renewable Sonoma, said the new facility will have no effect on water, and will discharge nothing.

The company’s proposal calls for a $50 million composting center between Llano Road and Walker Avenue that will take in about 100,000 tons of material a year and use anaerobic digestion to create biogas and other methods to create compost and mulch.

The offer also provides a potential solution to the county’s green waste dilemma.

There are 17 composting sites in Sonoma County, but Zero Waste Sonoma Executive Director Leslie Lukacs said none of those are equipped to handle commercial-scale composting. And none sought the opportunity to do so when the county waste agency put out its request for proposals for a new facility.

Since 2016, $7.6 million has been spent shipping green waste out of the county - more than would have been shelled out for in-county operations. The extended hauling also has led to rate hikes for consumers.

That new plant would be located on Santa Rosa city property, and Renewable Sonoma would pay rent. Zero Waste Sonoma’s responsibility is to guarantee all of the government entities it represents - the county and its nine cities - send their compost to the new central facility and pay for that composting through ratepayer charges.

Petaluma is the only municipality not in the mix because it sends its green waste and garbage to Redwood Landfill in Marin County.

Negotiations have come in fits and starts, with the public waste authority going through three top leaders since its board voted to pursue a deal with Renewable Sonoma. That deal, should it come, would involve Zero Waste Sonoma paying the company to accept and process compostable materials, including yard waste, food waste and more.

“I’m confident this will happen,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a Zero Waste Sonoma board member. “I don’t think it’s going to happen soon.”

Shortly after the agency’s August 2018 board meeting, Executive Director Patrick Carter resigned. Last October, former Sonoma County Public Works Director Susan Klassen was appointed interim director. Finally, in May, Lukacs became the agency’s executive director. Lukacs was once a lead member of the project team for Renewable Sonoma, responsible for government affairs and community engagement.

Lukacs said officials with the public agency sought a ruling from the Fair Political Practices Commission regarding a potential conflict of interest, and Lukacs provided the commission ruling that showed there wasn’t a conflict of interest.

A final agreement for a new compost site has to go through a lengthy environmental study, and the compost operator doesn’t want to start that process unless it has assurances it will get all of the material the waste agency has access to.

Bakx said he has no concerns based on initial promises included in Zero Waste Sonoma’s request for proposals.

“I think they’re all on board,” Bakx said, speaking of the eight cities and the county.

But he acknowledged the timeline has been extended at least a year, if not more. Originally planned for opening in 2021, the facility now is more likely to open in 2022, Bakx said.

“But that requires keeping the fingers crossed,” he said.

Gorin said she expects neighborhood opposition, especially when talking about a composting facility and what Gorin said were “very real” concerns related to flooding in the area.

Complaints lodged by Eicher and his neighbors also deal with light pollution, noise and traffic, as well as risks to air and water quality.

Bakx said his company will address concerns through the environmental review process and through outreach to neighbors. He said he has no concerns about the site at this time.

Santa Rosa Water spokeswoman Elise Howard didn’t return phone calls seeking comment about the proposed facility on city property.

On a tour of the neighborhood Thursday, Eicher pointed to various areas that regularly flood. He pointed at the yellow signs warning of flooding. He knew about that when he moved in, too.

Of Eicher’s 2 1/2 acres of land, half an acre is set aside in conservation easements. In public comments at Zero Waste Sonoma meetings, Eicher has said his purchase of the property was due to its value as open space.

“We live here because we wish to be surrounded by nature, not polluting industrial-scale composting operations,” Eicher said in a public statement.

*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the annual tonnage Renewable Sonoma would be expected to handle at a proposed composting facility.

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