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Sonoma bans gas leaf blowers

On a split vote, the Sonoma City Council took a controversial stand against gas-powered leaf blowers Monday night and approved the first reading of an ordinance that will ban all leaf blowers powered by internal combustion engines, as well as the use of gas or diesel-powered generators to run electric leaf blowers. Electric-powered leaf blowers, per se, were not affected.

In an additional clause, the council decreed that no leaf blower “shall be operated in a manner that directs dust and debris onto any neighboring parcel.”

The 3-to-2 vote in favor of banning gas blowers followed more than an hour of public comment and council debate, during which 24 people stepped to the podium, almost half opposed to the ban. Thirteen people expressed support for it, although one of them, Karen Barto, described a personal negotiation she had with her landscaping company after which “they switched to a rake and we were fine.”

Landscapers who testified, unanimously opposed the ordinance, claiming it would drive up costs and necessitate an expensive investment in electric-powered blowers.

Craig Martin, a Sonoma landscaper with “a two-man business – myself and my son,” warned the council that conversion to electric blowers would cost more than $2,000.

And Paul Gorce, a Third Street West resident who is not a landscaper, nevertheless blistered the council for even considering the ban. “I’m getting tired of people telling me I can’t do this and I can’t do that. Next it will be chain saws and chippers, lawn mowers … you’re going to cost people a lot of money, especially these people who go around cleaning up lawns and lots …”

At the other end of the spectrum was Georgia Kelly, founder of the Praxis Peace Institute, who recently returned from a month in Europe where, “I didn’t hear a leaf blower the whole time.” Kelly, a Sonoma resident, reported watching municipal workers in a large European city park raking leaves, and said she supports “a total ban on all leaf blowers. Electric blowers blow the same amount of dust, pollen and fecal matter up our noses and who knows where else.”

Allen Olinger, an eastside Sonoma resident, countered that his landscaper comes one day a week to service four or five houses, leaves no debris in the street and is gone within two hours.

He criticized a “self-appointed group (who) want to put offenders in jail – it’s just crazy. It’s ‘my way or the highway,’ Neighbors like these didn’t really work out too well for Anne Frank,” he said.

But for Broadway resident Rick Suerth, who said he works from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. in his home office and takes numerous conference calls two days a week, nearby leaf blowers are often so loud, “sometimes I have to take calls in the bathroom. I don’t want to put these guys out of business, but I don’t want to be put out of business either.”

And Darryl Ponicsan, the screenwriter and novelist who spearheaded the campaign against gas blowers and writes in a backyard office bordered by four other residences that all employ leaf blowers, decried the “aggression, threats and name calling” from opponents of the ban.

Ponicsan said he recently had surgery and “would have preferred another day of recovery.” But the following day, “I had four leaf blowers outside. I went out and talked to each one, and showed them my small electric blower that works just as well as gas … let’s rid this town of a clear and present nuisance.”

He then submitted a petition with 301 signatures supporting the ban.

The cost of alternative methods of leaf and debris removal have long been part of the banning debate. City Public Works staff have estimated the cost of converting to battery-powered, backpack blowers at about $10,000. And an additional expense could be incurred if the contractors who maintain eight of the city’s 16 parks and two senior apartment complexes raise their rates in response to the ban.

Whether or not alternative means of leaf and debris removal are really less efficient and more expensive remains an open question. Opponents of gas blowers point out that somewhere between 18 and 30 California cities have already imposed such a ban (the number and nature of bans are imprecisely compiled) with no reports of increased cost or landscapers driven out of business.

Famous among ban proponents is the 1998 story of a Los Angeles-area grandmother in her 50s named Diane Wolfberg who competed with rake and broom against both electric and gas-powered mowers in a series of tests to see which device was fastest and most thorough. Wolfberg was judged cleanest of all three efforts and nearly as fast as the gas-powered blower in cleaning a 100-square-foot patio, a 50-foot grassy slope and a 30-foot concrete ramp.

Leaf-cleaning tools have improved significantly since the simple backyard rake. A two-sided “Power Rake” said to make leaf raking substantially faster with less effort, retails for about $45.

The $100 “Leaf Collector” is essentially a hand-powered lawnmower with brushes instead of blades that sweeps leaves into a large attached bag. And various vacuum attachments are available for electric-powered blowers that suck leaves and lawn debris into a bag for disposal.

Supporters of gas blowers argue, however, that the latest four-stroke motors can be used more quietly than electric blowers with far less pollution than two-stroke models.

The City of Santa Monica, which recently extended its ban on gas blowers, has itemized on its website a variety of hazards associated with use of the devices, including the spread of airborne particles that can provoke asthma, and generation of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. A gas-powered leaf blower, the city’s website asserts, emits “as much tailpipe emissions in one hour as an automobile does over 100 miles.”

In casting his vote for the ban, City Councilmember Steve Barbose acknowledged, “To say this is a simple issue is not something I can do.” But he said “warnings of dire economic consequences” were not convincing.

Barbose, who said he would actually prefer to ban all leaf blowers, added that “victims” of the devices don’t have a choice in whether they are exposed to the noise and pollutants. Ultimately, he said, “Noise pollution is the biggest issue.” And, he concluded, “Those of us who don’t want them are subsidizing those who use them.”

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse, meanwhile, remained steadfast against the ban, preferring instead to put the issue to a public vote at the next general election. Councilmember David Cook agreed with Rouse and Mayor Ken Brown agreed with Barbose, although he said he wasn’t ready to ban electric blowers.

That left it to Councilmember Laurie Gallian who said, on the one hand, “I can support banning of gas-powered leaf blowers, for sure,” but then moments later, added, “I see the need for more outreach” on the issue.

That prompted Brown to inject, “I’m becoming confused” about Gallian’s position.

Rouse tried to clarify things by succinctly stating, “Before us tonight is a ban on gas leaf blowers.”

Gallian’s response to that was sufficiently opaque to prompt Barbose to say, “The more you talk about it, the more confusing it gets. Are you for it (the ban) yes or no?”

Gallian made herself clear by proposing a motion to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, Barbose added to the motion a further clarification that it should apply to all internal-combustion leaf blowers as well as diesel generators, the motion went to a roll call vote and was adopted with Rouse and Cook opposed.

The revised ordinance will return to the council for final reading and adoption on Monday, Oct. 21.