The San Marcos City Council Tuesday night approved construction of a controversial trash-to-energy plant, paving the way for it to go to the voters Sept. 15.
The 3-1 vote displayed the passions and deep divisions that have marked the five-year history of the proposal and served as a taste of the upcoming campaign on both sides of Prop. A, the trash measure on the special election ballot.
"Never in my years on the council have I seen a group try to mislead the council and public so badly," said Mayor Lee Thibadeau, referring to project opponents.
"These people don't want a democracy," he said. "They want a dictatorship enforcing their point of view."
But Councilwoman Pia Harris, the lone vote against the zoning and General Plan changes and permits necessary for the plant, said the council is gambling with the health of citizens of San Marcos and surrounding communities.
Fears Health Problems
"There are serious health, technological and financial-risk questions with municipal solid-waste incineration," Harris said. "Municipal solid-waste incinerators must be seen as a factory for dioxins (a cancer-causing material). We are experimenting with the health of our citizens."
The campaign in favor of the plant has already seen the reassemblage of the brain trust behind Roger Hedgecock's 1983 mayoral campaign: political consultant Tom Shepard, pollster Bob Meadow and fund-raiser Nancy MacHutchin.
The trash plant proposal was one of Hedgecock's proudest political moments.
As a member of the Board of Supervisors, he was a prime sponsor of the decision to shift control of the county landfill in San Marcos to a private contractor, Herzog Contracting Corp.--the first step toward construction of the trash-to-energy plant. During the 1983 campaign, Hedgecock often pointed to the proposed plant as a sign of his environmental achievements.
As of July 1, the firm proposing to build the trash-to-energy plant, North County Resource Recovery Associates, has paid $1,292 to Nancy MacHutchin & Associates and $8,945 to Decision Research, Meadow's firm. Decision Research, in turn, paid $3,575 to Shepard.
Foes Raised Little
Project opponents, a group of environmentalists and homeowners, have not raised or spent the necessary $500 to require a disclosure filing with he city clerk.
For Shepard, the San Marcos campaign marks his return to local politics. His consulting firm disintegrated after he, Hedgecock, convicted swindler J. David Dominelli and Dominelli's companion, Nancy Hoover, were indicted on charges relating to the 1983 campaign.
Hedgecock, in his second trial, was convicted of conspiracy and 12 counts of perjury, all felonies, and ousted as mayor.
Shepard pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy and was fined $1,000 and ordered to perform community service. Meadow was listed by the Grand Jury as an unindicted co-conspirator.
The supervisors' 1982 vote giving control of the landfill to a private company also figures in a $1.2 million civil suit filed against Hedgecock and his campaign by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
The suit alleges that Hedgecock improperly failed to report $3,000 in campaign contributions from persons associated with Herzog in 1982 to avoid embarrassing political speculation about any connection between the contributions and his vigorous support of switching the landfill to private control. That suit is still pending.
Shepard accompanied NCRRA managing director Richard Chase to Tuesday's council meeting. He said the upcoming campaign would be "decidedly low-tech" and probably concentrate on mobile home residents, a powerful political bloc because of their numbers and their history of voting in high percentages.
San Marcos has 11,000 voters and officials say a turnout of 30% to 40% is probably unrealistically optimistic.
Site Next to Dump
The plant would be built alongside the county's existing trash dump on Questhaven Road in the southwest portion of San Marcos, close to the Carlsbad city limits.
The proposal has been opposed by the Carlsbad and Encinitas city councils but endorsed by the Escondido City Council. The coastal communities had asked for further study of health questions raised in an environmental study done at their request by a Northern California consulting firm.
The study funded by Carlsbad and Encinitas suggested that the possibility of a person dying from cancer because of proximity to the plant may be 10 to 1,000 times greater than stated by the developer.
But Chase has dismissed the Carlsbad-Encinitas study as inaccurate, charging it makes faulty scientific assumptions.
To Chase, the trash-burning plant is both an environmental boon because it decreases the county's dependency on massive landfills and an energy bonanza because it will provide low-cost power. He said the plant would take 30 months to be completed and working.
Encinitas Mayor Marjorie Gaines and Carlsbad Mayor Pro-Tem Ann Kulchin have said their cities might sue to block construction of the plant unless health questions were answered. Encinitas has already hired Solana Beach attorney Dwight Worden.
Homeowners May Sue
Stephen Isaac, representing homeowners in the Questhaven area outside San Marcos, said his group might also consider a lawsuit.
"There is always room for court action," Isaac said. "Our whole life's work is being threatened by this. We'll have to be breathing the fumes from this thing."
Councilman Corky Smith referred to opponents as NIMBYs--that is, people whose political philosophy is Not In My Backyard.
"After so many hearings, and after sitting up here for 12 years, I've never sat in a hearing where the facts are all on one side, and the emotions, the NIMBYs, are on the other," Smith said. "After four years they are still not listing to the experts."
Smith and other backers said the trash-to-energy plant is a safe and cost-effective alternative to landfills.
"We've seen all the evidence, and the evidence is that the proposed trash plant is considerably safer for the health and environment than landfills," said Councilman Mark Loscher.
The San Marcos vote comes a week after Signal Corp. dropped its proposal for a trash-to-energy plant in San Diego rather than face a public vote in November.