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Endorsement: Measure V would ban gas leaf blowers

“I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.” – Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

After more than five years debating decibel levels, wind velocity, rake efficiencies, GHG emissions and particulate volume, Sonoma voters on Nov. 8 will finally have their say about, that’s right – leaf blowers.

Measure V is a referendum on whether to uphold the city ordinance, passed by the City Council last spring and currently in suspension, which bans gas-powered leaf blowers and allows electric/battery blowers Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s the culmination of years of debate that’s put leaf blower opponents – who decry the noise, debris and pollution of the machines – at a crosswinds with blower advocates, who argue a ban on a simple power tool is government overreach and current restrictions on days and hours of use are compromise enough.

Previously, the issue had appeared to reach its zenith multiple times at the city council level, until inevitably one council member or another had a change of heart, bringing the divisive issue back to life more times than Jason Vorhees in a “Friday the 13th” sequel.

But, finally, it’s in the hands of the voters – meaning, if nothing else, the leaf blower tempest is probably wheezing to a finish.

Before we get to the rationale behind our recommendation, we’d like to make note of how poorly the discussion has played out as a form of constructive community dialogue.

The leaf blower issue should have been a simple conversation about two things: how to mitigate the annoyance blower noise causes for nearby residents; and how to achieve that goal without depriving landscapers of an adequate tool to efficiently do their jobs.

But, no – leaf blowers got personal.

From both sides of the debate came name calling, the circulation of bitter emails, hearsay claims of bogus signature gathering, exaggerated anecdotes of the evils/salvations of blowers, and unsubstantiated accusations of city council member political malfeasance.

To put it mildly, this issue has not brought out the best in Sonoma.

In fact, among the myriad reasons the leaf blower controversy has continued this long, perhaps the most salient is the idea that neither side could stand the thought of the other prevailing.

Ironically, even if Measure V passes, we don’t see any major “endzone dances” in the making.

Electric blowers, while to some degree quieter than gas, still muster quite a roar – and no small amount of debris. For those whose major beef with leaf blowers is that the noise and dust is a nuisance – and that has always been the primary objection – a victory for Measure V may seem pyrrhic when the dust finally settles (or, in the very literal sense, doesn’t).

That leaf blowers can be a nuisance is also the one place where pretty much everyone agrees, not merely in Sonoma, but across California – especially so in very affluent, older communities where hard working landscapers are as common as retirees in clear earshot of that hard work.

Noise pollution, like secondhand smoke, is not within one’s rights to inflict upon others. This is why a growing set of demographically similar communities to Sonoma – like nearby Tiburon, Belvedere and Mill Valley – have already dispensed with gas blowers, or blowers in general. While not all leaf-blower-annoyed communities levy bans, more than 50 in California employ some sort of restriction, as Sonoma has done since it codified hours of operation in 2011. (We’re intrigued by St. Helena’s ordinance, which bans nothing, but requires all blowers to have a sound reducer – like a muffler on cars – to mitigate noise. It eliminates the heavy handedness of a municipal “ban” and puts the choice in the landscapers’ hands – upgrade your equipment, or grab a rake.)

Our deliberations on Measure V have been far from a slam dunk. We’ve solicited the opinions of dozens of community members and discussed the benefits/disadvantages of the measure at length with our Community Advisory Board and editorial staff.

Opinions about the initiative’s pros and cons have swirled with more gusto than the Powermate Cyclone 150.

As we see it, the primary drawback to Measure V is that many landscapers would have to reinvest in electric/battery equipment to the tune of $300 or so per unit – or even a few thousand dollars for larger landscaping businesses – for the more powerful (and, alas, louder) gas-free blowers. That said, we don’t see anybody going out of business or losing their jobs over this; nor do we envision rates skyrocketing, though length of time on a job might be marginally higher.

What the value of passing Measure V should be weighed upon, then, are its perceived benefits to the community: What are they really?

As we said earlier, converting to electric blowers doesn’t wholly address the issues of noise and dust. While the average battery/electric blower is quieter than the average gas equivalent, it would be logical to assume professional landscapers will invest in the higher-end (read: more powerful, louder) electric blowers. Those hoping landscapers will revert to rakes are living in a dream world; while electric units are certainly healthier for users who would no longer breath the exhaust, the noise and dust aren’t going away without a complete ban on leaf blowers.

However, something does go away with a simple ban on gas blowers – and it’s something of benefit to the community, in fact, all communities: gas emissions.

Climate change, spurred on by the rapid proliferation of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, is likely the most profound challenge humankind will face in the coming decades.

The City of Sonoma is currently debating whether to move forward with “climate action” policies that directly address greenhouse gas and climate change. Among them is the possible passage of Measure V.

Barring leaf-blower gas emissions in a city of 10,000-plus is hardly going to end global warming. But no magic bullet will do that. Measure V would seem a small ripple in a growing wave to combat climate change – but in this wave, there are no inconsequential ripples. In fact, thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of local actions are what will ultimately be needed. If Sonoma can add to that – with no long-term ill effects to its small-business community – then it should. Similar movements are happening across the state; they are snowballing across the country.

They are incremental steps that, while in themselves small, will hopefully culminate in a more stable environment for future generations.

The leaf blower debate has been a time consuming and costly issue for Sonoma and, however the Nov. 8 vote turns out, we look forward to finally putting it to rest.

In that regard, we’ll all breathe a little easier.

We recommend a “yes” on Measure V.

– Jason Walsh, editor

– John Burns, publisher