Council eyes ban on leaf blowers

A proposed leaf blower ban, the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center, an annual report on the efforts of the Tourism Improvement District and a minor increase in garbage collection rates inside city limits are the major agenda items for the Sonoma City Council’s Labor Day-delayed meeting on Wednesday.

The leaf-blower ban has been proposed by a contingent of local citizens, led by author and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, who has appeared regularly at City Council meetings for the last eight months to protest what he has termed the “raucous, nerve-wracking” noise.

Ponicsan has circulated a petition with close to 300 signatures calling for a ban on gas blowers says his east side Sonoma home is abutted by five properties and that, “It’s not uncommon to have two leaf blowers going at one time. I’ve been driven out of my house,” he added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “and when I am driven out of my house, I go to one of those tasting rooms on the Plaza and I drink.So you could say, It’s driving me to drink.”

Ponicsan also complains that leaf blower restrictions adopted in 2011 that lowered allowable decibel levels and limited times of operation, are rarely – if ever – enforced.

Recently, said Ponicsan, he was returning from the Friday morning farmers market near Depot Park when he heard a leaf blower being used on the Field of Dreams. Ponicasn called police to complain about the noise and an officer, he said, took decibel readings, discovered the sound was excessive even at a distance of 100 feet, and ordered the operator to stop.

Whether the City Council will be willing to revisit the issue just two years since it was last addressed is unclear. The agenda item was placed by councilmembers Steve Barbose and David Cook with the purpose of testing council interest in reopening the question of a ban.

In preparation for such a discussion, city staff estimated the cost of replacing gas-powered blowers owned by the Public Works Department with electric blowers at some $10,000. Additional expense could be incurred, said the staff report, if contractors who maintain eight city parks and two affordable senior housing complexes would charge more for their services without use of blowers.

Noise limits of blowers were lowered in 2011 from 90 decibels to 70 at a distance of 50 feet. Hours of allowable residential operation were set at Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with use banned on Sundays and holidays. Commercial use is limited to the hours of 7 to 11 a.m. and in parks and public places blowers are allowed from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and are banned on weekends and holidays.

Ponicsan argues that the City Council should be more concerned about “vast number of people affected” by leaf blowers than about “the few people inconvenienced by a ban.”

He points out that the city of Carmel banned leaf blowers 38 years ago, “and there have been no reports of landscapers going out of business.”

But during the last City Council review of the issue, city staff conducted a test on the Fryer Creek bike path during which it took two maintenance workers one hour to sweep a 400-foot length of the path, whereas one maintenance worker cleaned the same length with a leaf blower in six minutes. And, noted the report prepared at the time, “It was observed that the tractor/lawnmower that is used for weed abatement generated more dust than the blower did.”

If the council feels compelled to address the issue, it will not do it Wednesday night. The only decision then will be whether or not to schedule a full hearing on the subject.

Also on the Wednesday agenda will be a proposed resolution calling on the state of California to lift the current ban on new admittances to the Sonoma Developmental Center. With the ban in place, the resident population is steadily shrinking and is currently at 485, less than half the population of 15 years ago.

SDC currently employs about 1,200 people and a task force formed in June to explore the facility’s future is due to make a report in November. The proposed council resolution calls on the state to keep the center open and improve its financial viability “by making its specialized services available to all individuals with disabilities.”

SDC is noted for its production of specialized equipment for severely disabled patients, including personalized wheelchairs, custom shoes and other handmade equipment.

The proposed garbage rate increase would amount to 30 cents for a typical 32-gallon, residential container.

The Tourism Improvement District report is mandated annually by the terms of the city’s agreement and is expected to take no more than 10 minutes.

The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room, 177 First St. W. The public is invited.