Leaf Blower Bans

By Jefferey Spivey

Redondo Beach, Calif., is known for its pristine outdoor spaces—the historic Veterans Park, the community playgrounds at Anderson Park, and the popular camping site, Hopkins Wilderness Park, to name a few. However, with a new leaf blower ban in effect, keeping these spaces clean and manicured might be a tall order.

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The ban, which took effect Aug. 11, prohibits residents and landscaping professionals from using motorized leaf blowers. The provision was championed by local residents hoping to reduce both noise and air pollution. While they’ve been successful in controlling these neighborhood disturbances, they’ve also created a new problem.

Leaf blowers served as an efficient way for city workers to keep open areas and walkways clear. Without them, these workers are facing a significantly increased workload.

“We’ll have to get a broom in hand,” jokes Ted Semaan, Public Works Director for the city of Redondo Beach. He estimates that city workers will spend “at least four times the amount of time” completing their usual cleanup duties. In addition to the increased labor costs, the leaf blower ban has also caused friction with local contractors.

Though the city employs roughly 80 percent of its landscapers directly, the organization maintains a contract with a local vendor to handle tree-trimming jobs along the city’s waterfront. This vendor has requested a 10-percent pay increase to offset the extra labor.

“It has impacted our contractual relationship,” Semaan says. He remained hopeful, however, that he could accommodate the price hike and planned to submit a budget request to city officials in mid-September. Semaan’s department is also exploring leaf blower alternatives.

“We do have a vacuum we are using as a pilot,” he says. So far, the outdoor vacuum has worked well in open areas and walkways but has proved difficult to maneuver around playground equipment. It’s not a perfect solution, but Semaan is optimistic that it will work long-term.

It also remains to be seen how local residents will deal with the ban over time. Lori Wayne, a local real-estate agent affiliated with Thrive California Realty, has received mixed reviews from residents and those hoping to move into the community. “Some residents like it. Others find it more of a sliver in terms of dampening noise, and some make reference to motorcycles and lawnmowers as noisy also,” she says.

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A Growing Trend
Redondo Beach is just one of several U.S. cities coping with leaf blower bans.

In Newton, Mass., city council enforced a more detailed ban in 2017. The provision bans any blowers with noise levels above 65 decibels, and all gas-powered leaf blowers are banned from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Battery-powered and electric leaf blowers are still permitted during this period. Additionally, leaf blowers can only be used from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Use is completely prohibited on Sundays, except for property owners using leaf blowers on their own property.

The town council of Maplewood, N.J., also unanimously passed a ban in early 2017. However, the ban has proved controversial as it only bans the use of gas-powered blowers from commercial entities, inclusive of landscapers; residents are still permitted to use the blowers. That stipulation doesn’t sit well with local contractors.

“They were being discriminatory toward contractors in general. There’s a golf course in town. They allow the golf course to use the equipment,” says Nelson Lee, President of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA). The NJLCA, along with nine landscaping vendors, filed a lawsuit against the town in December 2017. The group’s biggest issue with the ban was the residents’ unregulated use. Meanwhile, contractors have suffered significant consequences.

“They have to work longer. They have to work smarter,” Lee says. “Some of them are just telling people, ‘We’re not cleaning up.’ So, they’re basically just losing work or leaving a mess, which a professional is not going to want to do.”

Without leaf blowers, contractors are unable to clear leaves from walkways and decks and remove pollen from outdoor fixtures. As an alternative, they’ve begun exploring electric and battery-powered blowers, but Lee says these blowers are cost-prohibitive and don’t have the same longevity as gas-powered options.

Even more significant for Lee is that the ban isn’t reducing the issue of air pollution, cited as a primary concern by the town council. “The dust particles were one of the major factors,” he says. “If they’re allowing electric blowers, you kind of defeat the purpose.”

The NJLCA’s lawsuit is still ongoing, and Lee hopes a compromise can be reached soon. Until then, local contractors will have to choose between losing wages, investing in costly new equipment, or creating workarounds.

But there’s a chance that Maplewood’s contractors could emerge victorious. For an example of how to end the ban, they should look to Culver City.

The Way Forward
Culver City, Calif., council members attempted a similar ban in 2017, but after a compelling argument from Culver City Parks, Recreation & Community Services (PRCS), an outright ban was avoided. Instead, council issued an ordinance that only allowed leaf blowers with a noise level below 65 decibels. The ordinance also requires leaf blower users to secure a permit and read an informational flyer about proper use.

Parks Manager Patrick Reynolds was a driving force in preventing the ban. “The data that people are using to try to get them banned is very biased and very flawed in their favor, and it’s not based on the science. It’s based on somebody who’s a proponent of banning them,” Reynolds says. “We countered that by preparing a lot of data that was put together by the federal government and various agencies, that had refuted almost all of these claims about the pollution levels and the dust particle levels and all these other things that we’ve pretty much shown is miniscule compared to cars just driving down your street.”

In PRCS’ research, the department discovered that electric blowers were in fact louder than gas-powered blowers because they can be revved to a higher degree. Additionally, as suggested by Lee and the NJCLA, battery-powered blowers only lasted 90 minutes, which makes them unviable for commercial purposes. “Until the battery technology improves, we would not be interested in going that direction,” Reynolds adds.

Aside from debunking the claims about air pollution and noise, Reynolds’ research about cost got council members’ attention. He sent members of his crew to hand-sweep various public areas, including tennis courts, basketball courts, and sidewalks. There was a significant increase in manpower needs. To do this work manually, PRCS would need to send an additional four-man crew along with extra tools for every job.

“The citizens’ expectations were not going to decrease with the banning of leaf blowers,” he says. Thus, the council would have to invest more to get the work done if a ban went into effect. But not just a small amount—$1 million more.

“That dropped some jaws,” Reynolds jokes.

He also stresses a common-sense approach to the situation. “You don’t ban cars because of the few people who cause accidents, so we’ve taken that same approach with leaf blowers every time this issue comes up.”

Despite successfully avoiding the ban this go-round, community members continue to file complaints about leaf blower use. And nearby bans like the one in Redondo Beach give those citizens hope that a ban is possible. However, Reynolds is prepared. Part of his research also included studying areas where bans were already in place, like Santa Monica, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach. Officials in those cities agreed that the bans were unsuccessful, as they haven’t dedicated additional resources to enforcing them.

“All they’re really doing when they ban them is hurting their own employees that depend on these to do an efficient job,” Reynolds says. “Don’t penalize us for the actions of somebody else when this tool will render us crippled in maintaining all the hard surfaces in our parks alone.”

What happened in Culver City, and what’s yet to happen in Maplewood, could set a precedent for other leaf blower bans across the country. Regardless of the outcomes, it’s clear that leaf blowers are indispensable for parks and recreation departments, and a move to appease residents could have painful consequences for the very services those residents depend on to preserve the look, feel, and cleanliness of their communities.

Jefferey Spivey is a freelance writer living in Bentonville, Ark. Reach him at jefferey@uptownbourgeois.com.