UPDATED 12/15/2011

The controversy surrounding the proposal to allow the Recology composting facility in Lents to accept food waste has intensified over the past few weeks. The facility, which is located at SE 101st and Foster, would be a transitional staging area for food debris as part of the city’s food scrap collection pilot program. While the project has the support of many neighbors and nearby businesses, a growing opposition effort seeks to derail the effort on the grounds that the allowance of food waste will cause unpleasant odors, an increase in traffic, and many other problems.

After a three hearing on Wednesday, July 20, the city council agreed to postpone its decision until the end of August. All public comment is due by Wednesday, July 27.

The issue has gained attention in recent weeks as a well-organized opposition group has mobilized online and in the Lents neighborhood. The effort, titled under the mantle This Doesn’t Smell Right, is run by a nonprofit organization called the Springwater Trail Preservation Society, which was formed in May. Frank Fleck, president of the society, says that its formation was a reaction to the Recology proposal. “We started as a venue to gather support and help fight this,” he says.

Fleck says that his opposition to allowing Recology to compost food waste goes beyond matters of odor and traffic. “Lents has kind of been the red-headed stepchild of the city, and there are a lot people working to bring Lents back,” he says. “We don’t want to have this image of a blighted dumping ground. To put this garbage facility here in Lents... is not what we want. The people don’t want it, the commissioner doesn’t want it, the state senator doesn’t want it, the neighborhood association doesn’t want it.”

In fact, Mayor Sam Adams and the city council have received letters of opposition from Commissioner Judy Shiprack, State Senator Rod Monroe and the Lents Neighborhood Association.

Recology's location (circled in red) in Lents is close to many homes and apartments.
Recology's location (circled in red) in Lents is close to many homes and apartments.

For Fleck, large-scale food compositing in the Lents area would not just be invasive and insulting but would also harm property values and the local business community. “I would never have bought a house here if a garbage facility was right down the street. I mean, who would?” he says. “We want Lents to thrive. What business is going to want to locate here if we have a problem with odor?”

Not all Lents residents side with Fleck and the This Doesn’t Smell Right effort. Adam Simmons, a local graphic designer who is in favor of Recology expanding the use of the facility, says that the opposition is typical of a neighborhood that is often reluctant to embrace change. “Lents has a tradition of being home to a lot of ‘Nimbys,’” he says. “You know, ‘not in my neighborhood.’”

Simmons says it is fair to let Recology live up to its promises, which include a pledge to minimize odors with an advanced aeration system and to ensure that truck drivers know the correct route to the facility to prevent unnecessary traffic. “I think, if Recology does what they’re going to do, there aren’t going to be any complaints,” he says. “[The compost] will always be inside, and they say that they’re going to do everything they can to mitigate the smell.”

One of Simmons’ primary qualms with the opposition is the somewhat dubious nature of its organization. “Someone... has put a large amount of money into the anti-Recology effort,” he says. “It’s next to impossible that it’s just a coalition of citizens that put together some money and decided to chase Recology down.”

Katie Ogden, who answered the phone number listed on the This Doesn’t Smell Right website, was unsure of the group’s source of funding. “I’m not exactly sure where all of the funding is coming from,” Ogden says. She added that the Springwater Trail Preservation Society is “a citizen-run organization.”

When asked about the concerns regarding the opposition’s source of funding and organization, Fleck replied, “Certainly that’s coming from Recology... I’d be more concerned about Recology, because they have a history of corruption.” When pressed on where the funding for the Springwater Trail Preservation Society was coming from, Fleck responded, “I don’t know why it matters.”

Recology's Portland office in St Johns.
Recology's Portland office in St Johns.

The Springwater Trail Preservation Society was formed and registered on May 9 as a domestic nonprofit corporation. On the organization’s registry, the only name listed is Thomas Rask, the group’s attorney. Rask could not be reached for comment.

The opposition’s lack of transparency has not been well received by other parts of the Lents community. Melanie McCandless is the watershed team leader for Green Lents, a community organization that promotes sustainability. McCandless says that the group is in favor of Recology composting food waste but is not trying to sway the debate either way. “We’re not playing an advocacy role,” she says.

Instead, McCandless says, Green Lents is “encouraging people to make informed decisions.” She says that, regardless of the side one takes on the matter, healthy involvement with the process is good for the community at large. “I want to try and get my neighbors to get more information,” she says. “We should write into the council and raise concerns.”

Like Simmons, McCandless feels that the official opposition effort is using questionable tactics. “I’m a little suspicious of where all the funding is coming from,” she says. “We’re just trying to get people to have all the facts and make their decision with facts rather than PR hype.”

Beyond the debate over the specifics of the proposal lingers the more conceptual discussion over what is best for the Lents neighborhood. For Fleck, growth is important, but only if it is the right kind. “Just because there’s an offer to bring this business in, it may not be the business that is the best for us,” he says.

For Simmons, this is the kind of thinking that has given Lents its underdog status. “Lents needs more business. I really don’t want there to be this precedent set, [which is] ‘don’t come to Lents because we’re going to fight you tooth and nail,’” he says. “We’re not in a position to cherry pick.”

UPDATE 12/15/2011: Earlier this month, Portland's city council voted to uphold a decision made by hearings officer Gregory J. Frank allowing representatives for Recology, the San Francisco-based waste management company, to move forward on a plan to accept, sort and dispose of organic waste and yard debris at their SE 101st Ave. recycling center.

Frank’s mid-April decision was appealed by Cottonwood Capital Property Management as well as resident Frank Fleck, who, as reported earlier this year, presided over the then-freshly minted Springwater Trail Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that Fleck says was formed in response to Recology's proposal.

Despite the appeal, the council moved that Recology can proceed with its proposal so long as it sticks to a number of conditions, including that its employees temporarily store collected organic waste in a fully enclosed structure, and that the company install a biofilter aeration system in the sorting building to capture liquid waste, which will then be removed from the site.