SAN MARCOS — A ground breaking-that-wasn't took place Thursday at the site of a proposed trash-to-energy plant here.
Despite the legal limbo that followed a judge's ruling last week holding up the project, project backers and politicians Thursday praised the city for its leadership and criticized the opposition for being a nuisance.
"If it were not for a procedural error four years ago and the insistent litigation that followed, this project would be up and running on this site today," said Richard Chase, managing director of North County Resource Recovery Associates, the private company wanting to build and operate the $217-million project, unique in San Diego County.
Perhaps the only suspense of the day was whether NCRRA officials would actually break ground at the site, given a court order last week which invalidated the existing contract between the firm and the county of San Diego for NCRRA to build and operate the facility.
Superior Court Judge Alpha Montgomery ordered all activity on the project stopped until a new contract--now being negotiated--is approved by both sides.
A Few Ounces of Dirt
Opponents of the project said that given the judge's order banning any activity, and absent an operative contract between the county and NCRRA, the company had no right on Thursday to break ground on property to which it had no legal claim.
A full dozen persons were originally scheduled to take part in the shovel ceremony, including state, city and county officials. But after 20 minutes of speech making by various officials, it was only San Marcos Mayor Lee Thibadeau and city Planning Commission chairman Syd Notkin who each picked up a shiny shovel, moved to the side of the stage and pushed the blades perhaps two inches into the ground. Each lifted a few ounces of dirt and turned the shovels over, and that was that.
Most of the guests at the invitation-only affair had already moved toward a refreshment table as the ground breaking occured.
Chase said afterward that he decided to sidestep possible controversy by not having NCRRA officials participate in the dirt-turning.
"We didn't want to get into an argument and big dispute," he said. "We think it would have been legal (for NCRRA to break ground) but who cares. Let the city do it."
Thibadeau said he had "no problem" taking shovel in hand. "The opposition raised the issue, but it didn't bother us."
Noting that the city already has processed a preliminary grading permit for NCRRA to begin earthmoving--in fact, a scant 50 cubic yards until other conditions are met--Thibadeau quipped: "Heck, they can grade 50 yards. The permit (to begin moving earth) is legal as far as we're concerned."
In his remarks, Chase blamed opponents to the controversial trash-burning and recycling plant for three years of delays because of their ongoing lawsuits and for not having offered any viable alternatives to the state-of-the-art facility, which will burn most of North County's garbage to generate electricity.
He complained that the cost of garbage disposal has now increased because of the delay, and he criticized the cities of Encinitas and Carlsbad, which have publicly opposed the project, for not "having the courage to mandate source separation in their own communities."
He specifically chided Encinitas Mayor Marjorie Gaines for her proposal that North County cities band together as a joint powers authority and develop their own landfill. Gaines' proposal "was a dismal failure that evaporated into thin air," he said.
The dinging was not contained to Chase. State Assemblyman Bill Bradley (R-San Marcos), himself a former city manager of San Marcos, referred to the opponents' legal attempts to stop the project and said:
"If there was any way we could pass a law to prevent these nuisance suits, believe me I would vote for it."
Brian Bilbray, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, told the gathering of about 50 people:
"I'm here to say to you as a community, congratulations and thank you for being a leader."
State Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad) offered, "We're not doing something for ourselves. It's something we're doing for our children and grandchildren."
Even the minister who offered the opening invocation had fond remarks about the project. In his prayer, the Rev. Chester Palermo said, "We thank you for this great victory . . . a great blessing to the America we love."