Leaf blowers were all over the national news back in the day. A generation ago, a number of smaller, mostly affluent cities began regulating landscape blowers as a response to noise complaints. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, took things a step further by prohibiting the use of blowers within 500 feet of any residence. That regulation effectively banned blower use in the city.
That action led to an outcry from the landscape industry, which climaxed in a widely reported hunger strike by the Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles on the steps of city hall. Eventually, the city scaled back penalties for blower misuse from a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail to an infraction carrying a maximum fine of $270. To this day, the ban has never been widely enforced.
Fast-forward to 2015 and leaf blower use by landscapers remains a contentious issue, but one haggled over more at local community meetings than on the evening news. While it once seemed other cities would follow the lead of Los Angeles and attempt to ban blower use, that hasn’t happened. The heat has been dialed back somewhat on the issue, says Larry Rohlfes, assistant executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association.
“My feeling is that the situation in Los Angeles caused other cities to sort of shy away from the issue,” he states. There have been just a handful of blower bans enacted in California in recent years, he says. “Mostly, cities have just been going the route of trying to pass ordinances with common-sense rules of courtesy,” Rohlfes explains.
On the East Coast, Jody Shilan, executive director of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, says very few townships in that state are “going after” leaf blowers. He cites one township in the state that attempted to ban blower use only by landscapers. “We protested that this was basically profiling of landscapers, and made some recommendations of things that we thought were reasonable as far as start times and stop times that were applicable to everyone,” he says. “The township adopted our recommendations.”
Landscapers in New Jersey are more worried about other business regulations and permitting headaches than they are about leaf blowers, in large part because towns that do take up the issue seem to be looking for common-sense solutions rather than trying to ban blowers. “You might see restricted hours of use or sound level limits imposed rather than a ban,” agrees John Foster, manager of product compliance at STIHL, who tracks the issue nationally.
Larry Will also sees fewer blower regulations being put in place than was the case in the past. Will retired in 2002 as vice president of engineering at Echo, where he helped to pioneer development of the first quiet blower on the market. He remains involved in the industry as a consultant for issues surrounding leaf blower use. “I might see one city try to start some sort of motion or activity to address leaf blower use every two or three months. It used to be three per month. So it’s better than it was,” he observes.
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Controversy surfaces in Massachusetts
Still, that’s not much consolation to landscape contractors working in areas where burdensome blower use regulations are being debated and put in place.
Joe Caruso brings up a prime example. He operates Joe Caruso Landscaping in Newton, Massachusetts, and first started proactively fending off a blower ban in that community nearly a decade ago. The issue recently resurfaced after a community group began a new push to ban blowers.
When the issue first came up, Caruso wrote a letter to his customers explaining the issue and how a ban on blowers would force landscapers to raise their prices in order to pay the costs of the additional manual labor needed for cleanups.
“I asked them to please send letters and emails to the board of aldermen,” he recalls. That did the trick and the local politicians dropped the issue. But now that it has resurfaced, Caruso sees a more organized blower opposition, and one that’s more vocal. Ninety-seven members of a local activist group showed up at the town meeting about the issue, with some nearly hysterical about the need to ban blowers. “There was screaming, yelling… it was like a Jerry Springer show,” he explains. “There were 12 of us landscapers there and we just sat there like perfect gentlemen and waited for our turn to talk.”
Caruso—at the meeting and in local newspaper stories—has presented fact-based, scientific information about blower use. He has also organized dozens of his fellow landscape contractors as well as golf courses and local private schools to help explain to their customers and the community what a ban will do their businesses.
“The blower opponents keep saying it’s better and cheaper to rake because you don’t have to pay for gas,” says Caruso. “But to do the work, I’d have to hire three extra guys, and by the time I pay their liability insurance and get an extra vehicle for them, that’s an extra $150,000 a year that I would have to pass on to all of my customers.”
The blower opponents in Newton are calling for a complete ban on blowers outside of the following dates: March 15 to May 1 and October 15 to December 1. They also want to limit blower use to a 65-dBA blower. They are also asking the mayor for a complete ban without a special exemption to be implemented in two years.
Seeking common-sense rules
Caruso is pushing for what he calls a common-sense regulation, similar to the one that’s in place in the nearby city of Arlington, where 65-dBA blowers are required only in the summer months.
Former Echo VP Larry Will encourages other landscapers to be as proactive in addressing the issue in their local communities. He says blower bans can start with a single letter to the editor complaining about blower use, so it’s best for landscapers to keep their eyes and ears open.
Will also sees worrisome changes in the way that opponents of leaf blowers are choosing to wage their battles. For starters, rather than being driven by grassroots efforts in select cities as it once was, the fight seems to now be directed by national advocacy groups. “There are groups that are well organized that are going from city to city and getting residents, people who are local, to bring these issues before city councils,” he explains.
Second, the line of attack seems to be shifting away from noise to accusations about blowers impacting air quality and health, a tact being taken in Newton, Massachusetts. In part, that’s due to losing the battle over sound.
Because blower manufacturers have responded to noise complaints by introducing quieter blowers, “noise shouldn’t really be an issue today,” says Will. “There are now many blowers to choose from that are rated at 65 dBA, which is a 75 percent reduction in sound levels from where things were 15 years ago. So it’s been hard for blower opponents to convince cities to do anything about blowers based simply on sound. But now they’re making it into a health issue, and talking about dust and dog feces and pesticides and fertilizers.”
The claim is that blowers stir up these types of substances and make these particulates airborne. Will says there is no science to support such claims, and encourages landscapers in communities where this issue is being brought up to ask for proof. “When you hear those sorts of arguments, you have to ask people where they got their information. Ask to see some test results,” says Will. “There’s nothing out there.”
Those making such claims lack the scientific background to do so, and, in most cases, aren’t familiar with the tools they’re trying to ban. “They say that a leaf blower puts out 200 mph or 210 mph air that’s like a hurricane. But, of course, that hurricane is only happening 5 inches from the end of the nozzle,” says Will. “Twenty-five feet away, you can hardly even measure it.”
Read more about the advancement of blower technology here.
COVER PHOTO: STIHL