Sonoma County supervisors vote to extend compost agency

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Sonoma County supervisors have voted to extend the beleaguered Sonoma County Waste Management Agency until officials can hammer out a deal to return composting to a local facility and settle a high-profile lawsuit challenging the planned future compost site at the Central Landfill.

The agency, which oversees the county’s multimillion dollar composting operation, will dissolve next February unless representatives from Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Rohnert Park approve a one-year extension until February 2018. The county and the remaining six cities already have voted in favor of extending the agency operations, which include education programs and collection of yard waste, food scraps and hazardous materials.

Santa Rosa and Healdsburg will take up the matter this month. Rohnert Park voted in January against an extension, but city officials could take up the issue again. Meanwhile, officials said they hope to resolve some points of contention.

“We think we can get the fundamental issues resolved before the sunset date,” said Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park’s assistant city manager, who represents the city on the agency’s board.

The agency has been under fire in recent years for what some county and city officials contend is an inefficient organization plagued with prolonged legal troubles. At issue is construction and operation of a new $55 million compost facility at the Central Landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati. Sonoma Compost Co., a private company and the county’s former dominant compost provider, was forced to close in October by a settlement of a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by a group of neighbors who live near the landfill. The settlement cost ratepayers more than $1.1 million.

Since the closure, ratepayers have seen increases of about $4 on their monthly garbage bills to pay for the costs of hauling organic matter out of the county, said Patrick Carter, the agency's interim director.

“We are desperate to bring compost back to Sonoma County — our farmers need it, and outhauling all that waste is not a good economic or environmental solution,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the county’s representative on the 10-member board of directors for the agency. “The question is how do we build a state-of-the-art facility without being subject to lawsuit after lawsuit.”

Zane and other supervisors at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting blasted the agency, arguing that the way it operates — most decisions require a unanimous vote of the 10-member board — is impeding its mission and costing ratepayers money.

“We need a leader stepping forward — there hasn’t been one yet, and there hasn’t been one at the Waste Management Agency,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “I’d feel much happier if we had a plan to get compost back in the county so we don’t have to keep outhauling … we need to figure this stuff out soon instead of talking about governance issues.”

In voting to extend the agency, supervisors said an additional year would allow the agency’s board to figure out who will handle operation of compost, household hazardous waste and education programs. Zane said after February 2018 the agency will likely dissolve. The county is poised to take over composting and hazardous waste collection. Education programs and waste reporting requirements to the state would be handled by an agency that has not yet been determined.

There is a lack of consensus, however, on whether cities want the Waste Management Agency to end, which entity will handle compost and whether the new facility will be built, Carter said.

“Board members are trying to figure the future of this agency and compost at the same time,” Carter said. “I think that we’ll get there.”

The board in June voted to require the new facility be built at the Central Landfill. That process, however, is also being stymied by a second lawsuit filed last year in state superior court by Roger Larsen and a group of about 100  neighbors who live in the Happy Acres subdivision near the landfill. Larsen filed the lawsuit in June, calling the environmental review for the new compost site at the landfill inadequate.

Meanwhile, it is costing the agency roughly $4 million a year to haul yard waste and food scraps out of the county, up from $2.5 million when compost was handled locally, Carter said. Yard and food waste is being trucked to composting sites in Novato, Ukiah and Vacaville.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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