Council to mull leaf-blower ban

Opponents of gasoline-powered leaf blowers scored a victory Wednesday when the Sonoma City Council agreed to consider a ban of the noisy devices.

A persistent group of opponents, led by author and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, presented its views to the council, but not all were happy with the outcome.

Among the parade of speakers were several who asked for bans on all types of leaf blowers, citing health concerns. But the council was not yet ready to take that step, nor was it inclined to send the issue back to the Community Services and Environment Commission.

When the city’s noise ordinance was modified in 2011, the commission held several hearings and made recommendations. As a result, hours of allowable residential operation were set from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 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

Opponents said these hours have been ignored by contractors and the general public and have not been enforced by police. “The reason you don’t have complaints is that people don’t think it will do any good,” said Ponicsan during public comments.

A report by Police Chief Bret Sackett appeared to confirm that few complaints are made. It said that from January 2012 through July 2013, there were 92 general noise complaints, but only two were related to leaf blowers. In the same time period, there were 65 specific city ordinance noise complaints, with 14 related to leaf blowers. Seven of these were “use before 9 a.m.” violations that were called in by Ponicsen. The report concluded there were no arrests and no citations issued.

“History teaches us that no matter what process we use, we make the decisions,” said Steve Barbose. “I don’t like bans, but I think we can ban gas-powered blowers.”

The lone vote against revisiting the issue was Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse, who noted that the speakers constituted a vocal minority who were passionate about the issue. He said he wanted to hear from more people before he makes a decision, and might even prefer a ballot measure.

If the ban is approved, city staff estimates the cost of replacing gas-powered blowers owned by the Public Works Department with electric blowers would be $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.

According to websites operated by broad-based landscaping organizations, 20 cities in California have the ban in effect.

None are in Sonoma County. However, a petition presented by Ponicsan was signed by many people from Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and other areas of the county, indicating there are many who believe leaf blowers should be banned.

Connie Rosen, who addressed the council, said she’s been in the landscape business and suggested that the problem is not with contractors, but with homeowners. She said they need to change their expectations. “Leaves on the ground can be beautiful,” she said.

Bob Edwards, who said he was channeling remarks heard from neighbors, said a total ban might be best. “If you can afford lawn service, you can afford to pay a little more.”

Following council direction, city staff will prepare a draft ordinance amendment to be placed on the agenda of the Oct. 7 City Council meeting.