After debate about whether Atherton town staff has the time to explore limiting leaf blower use in town, council members asked staff to estimate the amount of time it would take to look into the topic following a Sept. 3 City Council study session.
Council members questioned whether the town should allocate time from staff members' already limited schedules to examine limiting the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Councilman Cary Wiest said he wasn't interested in devoting time to the discussion and noted that he wouldn't assume that leaf blowers are the main cause of dust and pollution in town.
"To understand what we're trying to accomplish, I have to understand what the issues are and I don't understand what the issues are," Wiest said.
Councilman Mike Lempres replied that the issues are "noise and pollution," which Wiest responded are "both arguable."
Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia and council members Lempres and Elizabeth Lewis said staff should examine restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers in nearby towns to get a sense of how Atherton could implement its own policy. In January, the Portola Valley Town Council amended 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. Los Altos banned gas-powered leaf blowers in 1991, Palo Alto in 2000, and Los Gatos in 2014.
"I think other thoughtful communities are taking action in a thoughtful way and I think that Atherton would like to do that too," Lewis said, adding that she wouldn't want the town to ban gas-powered blowers without giving people time to switch to electric ones. "We should be trying to protect our residents rather than sweep it under the carpet. I don't think we can do business as usual in this day and age."
Lempres said he's received complaints about gas-powered blowers and finds them "really loud and irritating."
Leaf blower use "bothers people," he said. "It does create noise. It does create pollution. ... It's worth expending some staff time to look at the issue."
The town now restricts hours that leaf blowers can be used, but not the type of blower, according to staff. (Leaf blowers may be used between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday.)
The discussion followed a recommendation from the town's Environmental Programs Committee in May that the council support phased restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers.
Most gas-powered blowers have two-stroke engines, which mix fuel with oil to operate the device, according to the staff report. Over 30% of the fuel that the engine uses fails to completely combust, releasing several air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons, according to the report. Studies have indicated that a gas-powered two-stroke blower can generate 23 times the carbon monoxide and almost 300 times the non-methane hydrocarbons compared with a 2011 Ford Raptor truck over a 30-minute period of usage. Lewis said at the meeting that this statistic is concerning.
Staff analyzed the feasibility of town maintenance employees and workers on private properties switching to electric-powered blowers. The analysis concluded that it may be difficult for town workers who use gas-powered blowers in Holbrook-Palmer Park, El Camino Real medians, the stream channel, sidewalks and streets to switch to corded or battery-powered leaf blowers. These areas do not typically have electrical outlets readily available, meaning the blower would need to hold a longer charge or workers would need to have portable gas generators available, according to the public works department.
The department notes that a ban on gas-powered blowers would require additional personnel or reduced level of maintenance in town. It could also be difficult for private property owners to switch to electric leaf blowers since properties in town are significantly larger on average than those in surrounding jurisdictions, and prohibiting gas-powered blowers would require some landscape contractors to purchase new equipment, staff noted.
Greg Conlon, an Atherton Rail Committee member who attended the meeting, wondered how a potential switch to electric blowers could affect his gardening bill.
DeGolia noted that with the growth of electric-powered tools that also use batteries, electric leaf blowers are likely becoming more powerful.
"It's part of our responsibility to improve the environment as much as we can," he said. "Let's find out the cost to get staff to spend time on it. I don't think it's the highest priority for us. Others (neighboring government bodies) are doing it and it's a good thing to look at."
One Atherton resident said the noise from leaf blowers is worse than airplane noise, and that he is concerned about how they impact landscape workers, who often don't wear masks. He said he holds his breath when he bikes by people using leaf blowers.
"We want to be green and go electric, then here we are using (gas-powered) leaf blowers," he said.
Mayor Bill Widmer recused himself from the discussion. He is an adjunct professor at Menlo College, and a change to the leaf blower policy could financially impact the school if it were forced to change its landscaping practices, creating a potential conflict of interest for him, City Attorney Bill Conners explained at the meeting.
Following the discussion, City Manager George Rodericks said staff will outline how much time and money it would take to research a possible limitation on gas leaf blowers. Staff will work with the Environmental Programs Committee to do public outreach on the topic, he said. The issue is expected to come back to the council in November.
At the same meeting, the council voted 5-0 in favor of a staff-created timeline to replace Conners, who announced his resignation in early August, effective Dec. 31, according to a town staff report. Conners, who was appointed in 2011, told The Almanac he is retiring.
Proposals for city attorney services will be due Oct. 7, and interviews will be conducted the week of Oct. 14. The council will aim to appoint the attorney on Nov. 6, with a tentative start date of Dec. 2.