The developer of the proposed trash-burning power plant in San Marcos is winning state legislative support for a bill that would make it harder for voters in San Marcos to block its construction.
The bill would outlaw the part of a proposed San Marcos municipal ordinance that would require that the trash-to-energy plant be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters. The ordinance will go before voters at a special election next month.
The proposed "urgency" legislation, which cleared an Assembly committee on Wednesday by a 6-0 vote, would prohibit initiative ordinances from subjecting trash-to-energy plants to approval of more than a simple majority vote.
The legislation was requested by North County Resource Recovery Associates (NCRRA), which already has won the approval of the San Marcos City Council to build the $120-million project at the county landfill on Questhaven Road near the rural community of Elfin Forest. The facility would burn more than 1,000 tons of trash daily as fuel to drive steam turbines generating electricity.
Project opponents characterize the trash plant as "heavy industry," saying it would generate excessive traffic and air pollution, and diminish property values. Opponents collected enough signatures to force a special citywide vote on April 30 on the ordinance, which, if approved by a simple majority of voters and upheld in court, would effectively block the plant's construction.
The proposed ordinance would not only require that the plant first be approved by a two-thirds public vote, but also prohibit its construction until a similar plant is built elsewhere in California. None now exists in the state.
NCRRA officials say the two-thirds requirement is too stringent and have filed a lawsuit in Vista Superior Court, hoping to have the initiative declared illegal. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for March 29. That lawsuit also claims that the initiative is discriminatory by requiring that a similar plant be first built elsewhere in the state, and that the measure is not the proper use of the initiative process.
Richard Chase, managing director of NCRRA, said his company decided to pursue legislative relief from the initiative as well as attacking it in the courts.
"We have always felt that the two-thirds approval requirement is anti-democratic and, if allowed throughout the state, would block resource recovery systems from being built anywhere in the state," Chase said Wednesday. "So we thought it would be a good idea to have specific legislation on that narrow point."
Jonathan Wiltshire, chairman of Citizens for Healthy Air in San Marcos (CHASM) and the man who spearheaded the initiative campaign, was unaware of the bill in Sacramento until notified by a reporter Wednesday.
"Oh, jimminy Christmas, you've got to be kidding," he said. "We were wondering if we should have our own lobbyist up there.
"I don't think very much of their motives," he said. "They're trying to build something regardless of the feelings of the residents of the community who will have to live with it for the next 50 years or more. This is what a commercial firm with lots of money can do to local citizens in a small, rural community. They're trying to roll over us with their money, and they've gone all the way to the state Legislature to do it. It's an underhanded act."
But state Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-San Leandro), who is sponsoring the bill, said the proposed law is intended to protect the best interests of the majority of voters in San Marcos.
"I am fundamentally committed to the fact that local initiatives should not require a two-thirds majority for anything. Otherwise, you rule by minority veto rather than majority will," Klehs said.
"There's a serious argument to be made that if 64% or 65% of the people in San Marcos want this facility, but it takes a 66.67% majority approval, then you have the will of 34% ruling over the will of the majority. They (members of CHASM) are saying the minority of the city should dictate the will of the entire city. We're not meddling in anyone's affairs; we're allowing the people in San Marcos to rule by majority. That's fair."
Klehs said he was asked to sponsor the legislation because he chairs the Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee, the only committee that needs to act on bill before it goes to the Assembly floor for a vote, probably next Monday or Thursday. From there it will be heard in the state Senate.
As an urgency bill, the measure must be approved by two-thirds of both the Assembly and Senate. Once signed by the governor, it would go into effect immediately.
Klehs said he sees no opposition to the bill, and expects it to pass both houses of the state Legislature before the April 30 election in San Marcos.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday morning adopted a resolution supporting the bill, but Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad), whose district includes San Marcos, said he does not support the legislation.