Town Hall in Portola Valley owns a gasoline-powered leaf blower for use in emergencies, such as when a tree falls across a road and spreads debris all over the place. But for ordinary leaf-blowing chores, staffers use an electricity-powered blower – and in two years, so will just about everyone who wants to blow leaves in town and not run afoul of the law.
At its meeting Wednesday, Jan. 9, the Town Council voted 4-0, with Councilman Jeff Aalfs absent, to amend an existing noise ordinance to ban the use of gasoline-powered blowers. The council agreed to a two-year delay before the regulations go into effect to allow gardeners and homeowners to replace their equipment.
The Bay Area Gardeners Association could not immediately be reached for comment.
The use of gas-powered blowers may be authorized by Town Hall in the case of emergencies, and staff is reviewing the idea of allowing them for homeowners who live along creeks and have responsibilities to prevent flooding. Debris problems along creeks can be unusually difficult, according to accounts from residents who live near creeks and who spoke against the ban at the council meeting.
The switch to electric blowers can be costly. Whereas a typical gasoline-powered blower costs between $400 and $600, an electric blower with all its associated equipment currently costs $1,900, Public Works Director Howard Young told the council. Some jobs will require gardeners to carry a spare battery, available currently for another $850, Young said.
The ordinance also bans use of electricity-powered blowers on soil and other "softscapes." Leaf blowers kick up fugitive dust – a term the California Air Resources Board defines as particulate matter that is not a side effect of fuel combustion. Vehicles create fugitive dust simply by moving down a road, either paved or unpaved, and if particulate matter is not already on the road, leaf blowers will move it there, the board says in a 2007 report.
Particulate matter, according to a town staff report and a 2012 report from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is "by far ... the greatest harm to public health in the Bay Area." The air resources board report notes that outdoor sources of particulate matter include wildfires and indoor sources include stoves, heaters, and fireplaces. Particles "can penetrate deep into the body to damage the lungs, heart, circulatory system, and even the DNA in cells," the report says.
The town notes that dust from a leaf blower travels at speeds comparable to hurricane-force winds; that blowers' two-stroke engines can generate greenhouse gas emissions, over one hour, equivalent to a car trip from Los Angeles to Denver; and that the engines can produce noise of up to 112 decibels, equivalent to a car horn heard at 3 feet away.
With this decision, Portola Valley joins 19 other communities in California, including Berkeley, Los Altos, Palo Alto, Carmel, Mill Valley and Malibu, according to a staff report. Five California communities ban all blowers, including those powered by electricity, and 59 restrict blower use to particular times of day, the report says.
Not a consensus
Town Hall received 43 messages from residents before the council meeting, with 16 opposed to the proposed ban and 17 in favor, Town Manager Jeremy Dennis told the council. Opinion among people who attended the meeting was also divided.
Resident Joe Coleman, who said he plays the piano at home, likened the noise of gas-powered blowers to the disharmony created when striking adjacent black keys on the piano at the same time.
Resident Belinda Brent asked the council to consider exceptions to the ban for people who live along creeks, as did resident Kathy Feldman.
Resident Danna Breen, a longtime advocate of a ban, complained of the potential of breathing in fecal matter from rats and ground squirrels that is made airborne by leaf blowers. As for the noise, she said it drives her to confine herself inside her home for hours at a time. "I don't want to live in a town where I have to wear a mask and earplugs," she said.
Resident David Beaver said he has no problem with the environmental motivations behind the ban, but he objects to people who are passionate about an issue and "know how to pull the levers of power ... and basically force the rest of the town to live our lives the way they think we should live our lives."
Town opinion is not at a consensus, he said, and the council should wait and see before approving a ban.
Resident Jon Silver, a former Portola Valley mayor and a former county planning commissioner who favors the ban, spoke twice, the first time to note how residents in the past managed to live enjoyable lives despite the fact that they didn't have the benefit of leaf blowers.
Silver returned to the microphone to respond to Beaver. "One has a right to influence one's government by winning elections, especially when it's done through democratic process without the effect of money or anything other than winning the argument," he said. "That's what we should care about, and I find it insulting (to allege) that our town is governed by anything else."
A climate crisis
Before voting to approve the ordinance, council members spoke favorably of the ban as a way to address noise impacts for people who work from home, as a way to slow soil damage since education efforts have not seemed to work, and as a way to address climate change.
"That one is huge," Councilman John Richards said in reference to eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered blowers. "I think we are absolutely in a crisis."
Councilman Craig Hughes called climate change "the biggest thing that is probably going to impact the most people. ... The more we can pick off low-hanging fruit, especially when there are viable alternatives, we should take every opportunity to do that. Fuel-shifting – transitioning to electric power from fossil fuel – is an easy way to do that."