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Leaf blowers not out of gas yet

"This is where things get a little weird."

That's what Mayor David Cook said, in humorous understatement, about the Sonoma City Council's latest round of sorting through city leaf-sorting policy – as a proposal to ban leaf blowers came back before city officials at the Sept. 9 council meeting.

The flurry over leaf blowers has been a hot topic in Sonoma for several years now, as critics of the blustery landscaping tools cite studies about the greenhouse gas and noise pollution of such models as the Twindstorm Dooly, whose manufacturer boasts a “wall of wind that no other leaf blower can provide.” Residents who live in neighborhoods with heavy leaf blowing maintenance – some of whom are part of an ad hoc organization called Sonoma Neighbors Against Leaf Blowers – complain of having to rearrange their lives in order to coexist with the cacophony and hazardous airborne particulates caused by the machines.

However, landscapers – and those who employ them – say the complaints are overblown (Sonoma Police report a total of 16 leaf blower complaints lodged last year) and that they already adhere to tight regulations over volume and leaf-blowing times of day. Landscapers stress that if the efficiencies of leaf blowers weren’t at their disposal, they would likely have to increase rates per job and their businesses would suffer.

The cost for enforcing a ban, according to city staff, would be between $75,000 and $150,000 annually.

More than 20 people spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting, with proponents and critics of leaf blowers in about equal numbers.

Sonoma resident Stan Pappas voiced his frustration over what considers government overreach.

“What’s next, lawnmowers?” asked Pappas. “I don’t get any of this. I’m afraid the Pope may come up with something (like this) and I’ll go to hell over leaf blower crimes.”

Commenters on both sides of the issue expressed frustration over the city’s inability to enforce rules it enacts.

Chris Patlock called for the city to enforce its regulations, “no matter what they are.”

Craig Martin echoed that sentiment, saying “we need to compromise.”

“We can enforce (the current restrictions),” said Martin. “But there are (landscapers) who don’t think you mean it.”

Mike Fanucchi described it as “a common-sense issue.”

“We have to compromise. We don’t just ban gas engines and go back to the horse,” said Fanucchi. “There are ways to do this without it being all one side or all the other.”

But those at the meeting who’ve found themselves downwind of one too many leaf blowers weren’t necessarily in a compromising mood.

“This constant urge to compromise,” said Sonoma resident Tamara Unger, “it’s just not working.”

Leaf blower critic Carolyn Wampole was among a handful of those at the meeting who run home-based businesses and said the “nuisance” from blowers made it impossible to work.

Mara Lee Ebert, meanwhile, said the excessive leaf blowing compromises the health of her son who suffers from breathing difficulties. Likewise, Cecelia Ponicsan recounted an episode when a face-to-face encounter with a cloud of leaf blower debris sent her seeking medical help.

Bob Edwards voiced his support for a ban, but added that ultimately the city needs an “enforcement officer,” charged with ensuring residents comply with myriad city ordinances – from leaf blowers to unleashed dogs on open space to roudy vacation rentals.

“Seventy-five thousand would be a nice salary,” said Edwards, referring to the costs of enforcing the leaf blower ban. “I might even apply for the job.”

In the end, the councilmembers remained in somewhat similar positions to where they were after addressing the issue most recently in July – and, again, no official vote on the matter took place, but further direction was given to city staff to prepare an ordinance to be put to a vote possibly the first week of October.

The ordinance would ban gas powered leaf blowers throughout the city, as well as electric leaf blowers in residential neighborhoods. Electric blowers, however, would be allowed in commercial, mixed-use and public areas on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Gas-powered blowers would only be allowed in case of a leaf-blowing emergency, according to city staff.

But even that proposal is no sure thing to earn three votes from the council. Councilmember Gary Edwards made it clear he was not in favor of a ban of any sort; Mayor Cook and Councilmember Rachel Hundley seem open to a ban with exeptions for electric blowers in public, mixed-use and commercial spaces; while councilmembers Laurie Gallian and Madolyn Agrimonti prefer a complete ban with no exceptions for electrics.

One day, however, leaf blowers may be a moot point – that is if entrepreneur Bill Wood has his way.

Wood spoke at the meeting about his new patent-pending leaf cure-all – the Peacebroom. Wood offered to demonstrate his “leaf blower, broom, rake, dustpan – in one,” before the council and brought forward a wooden broom pole with a large sheet of corrugated plastic at the end.

“It creates wind in front and a vaccuum behind it,” Wood said, waving the Peacebroom at the City Council bench.

On his website at peacebroom.com (which lists an address of Reno, Nevada) Wood says landscaper will one day, “Dance in harmony with the leaves, as you magically command the wind.”

Whether Wood’s dream of a Peacebroom in every yard comes to fruition or not, one’s thing’s for sure. A little “harmony” in the ongoing leaf blower debate certainly couldn’t hurt.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.