It’s a polarizing device that pits neighbor against neighbor.
For some, it frays irritated nerves, disrupts their serenity and ought to be banned. To others, it’s a highly efficient, cost-effective tool.
“It’s one of those things that’s worthy of having controversy about,” said June King, owner of Landmark Landscape Co. in Sonoma. “There are all kinds of different opinions about them — and they’re all valid. How do you do the job without them? And yeah, they’re noisy.”
Leaf blowers are essential for her business, King said, but she’d just as soon have them muffled.
Dave Waldron of Waldron Landscaping said he isn’t necessarily opposed to a ban as long as it applies equally to all landscapers.
“We would use brooms probably,” Waldron said. “(Leaf blowers) make the job cheaper for people. They can get the job done faster; it takes a lot longer to use a broom.”
Sonoma’s City Council on Wednesday is set to discuss whether to proceed with an ordinance that would restrict, or perhaps ban, the power landscaping tools.
The issue pops up from time to time, some might say like a dandelion or crabgrass, in Sonoma County communities. But so far, none has gone so far as to legislate leaf blowers beyond standard noise restrictions.
Some Sebastopol residents pushed the issue as far as the City Council last year, but the issue was put off until the fall.
Sonoma resident Lisa Summers’ research on potential health and environmental risks of leaf blowers caught the attention of councilmembers Ken Brown and Joanne Sanders, who asked that the issue be addressed by the full council.
The result, City Manager Linda Kelly said, could be to write an ordinance banning or restricting leaf blowers in the city. Or the issue could be sent to a committee that studies environmental concerns within the city.
A ban on the use of leaf blowers, if applied to city properties, could increase costs, Kelly warned, because of the extra time needed to clean walkways and parks of leaves and other debris that can become hazards or block storm drains.
If Sonoma votes to ban leaf blowers, it will join the ranks of about 20 other California cities to have done so, including Belvedere, Beverly Hills, Carmel, Del Mar, Malibu, Santa Monica, Mill Valley, Berkeley and Palo Alto. Other cities restrict their hours of operation, or allow only electric or battery-powered blowers.
Kris Kiser, an executive vice president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute in Virginia, said his trade group understands the tools can be irritating.
“It bothers people. We recognize that,” he said. “It’s a challenge because they’ve become ubiquitous. Millions of units sell every year because they’re very efficient. They work very well for what they’re designed for.”
The trend is toward quieter blowers, he said. Most newer machines operate at 65 decibels or lower, which is quieter than most lawn mowers and chainsaws, he said. Sonoma’s noise ordinance prohibits the use of “residential power equipment” before 8 a.m., later on weekends and holidays, and every day after 6 p.m. Noise limits are set at 90 decibels.
Often, though, Kiser acknowledged, it’s the pitch of the blowers more than the volume.
Summers, who submitted a letter seeking an outright ban in a 22-page packet sent to the City Council, said she has lived in Sonoma for 13 years.
“During the countless hours I’ve spent at city parks with my four children, nothing in my mind stands out as a more constant and insidious disruption to the quality of life in the valley than the ever-increasing use of leaf blowers,” she wrote.
For years, she said, she has seen city maintenance workers use leaf blowers “in close proximity to playgrounds where young children and babies play without the ear protection the workers wear.”
And, she argues, leaf blowers cause air pollution and health problems.
“Leaf blowers are associated with a wide range of impacts to human health and the environment, including but not limited to respiratory illness and distress, air pollution from unburned fuel, redistribution of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, dust particles and animal feces into the air we breathe,” she wrote.
A study issued in 2000 by the California Air Resources Board in response to questions from the Legislature was inconclusive regarding potential health and environmental impacts.
Developed in the early 1970s, the leaf blower became popular in California when water was banned for many garden clean-up tasks because of drought concerns, the report noted. In 1998, nearly 2 million of the tools were sold nationwide.
“Health effects from hazards identified as being generated by leaf blowers range from mild to serious, but the appearance of those effects depends on exposures: the dose, or how much of the hazard is received by a person and the exposure time,” the report said.
King said in her nearly 30 years as a landscape company owner, “none of my clients have ever asked me not to use one.”
“As with anything, common sense is a guideline that I encourage my guys to use,” she said. “Our guys are supposed to be conscientious. If someone’s having a party, don’t use it.”