Atherton to begin exploring gas-powered leaf blower restrictions


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.


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2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 11, 2019 at 10:32 am

"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,"
Councilman Cary Wiest also said he wasn't interested in devoting time to the discussion.
All of which leaves me to the question is councilman Wiest a Donald Trump appointee?

2 people like this
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 11, 2019 at 12:29 pm

or a Trump donor ?

7 people like this
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 11, 2019 at 12:44 pm

How about a solution that costs the gardners NOTHING: Eliminate blowers of all types (unless you have large cheeks).

Let the homeowners figure out if paying their gardner to use a rake and broom is really worth keeping their driveways & walkways pristine.

Comment below from the Almanac archives:
"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."

6 people like this
Posted by MC
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:20 pm

I agree that leaf blowers are as bad or worse than noise pollution from airplanes. A crew with rakes and brooms can do the same job with less noise and no pollution but maybe not quite as pristine and it takes a small crew for a large property, or more time for that blower turned rake and broom user. So I say let the gardeners make more money and spend the time. Also allow only electric blowers, and allow them only one day per week...maybe Tuesdays.

6 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Memberone. Agreed, no power blowers of any kind.
Two years to buy a rake in PV!

10 people like this
Posted by menlo parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:21 pm

menlo parent is a registered user.

You’re absolutely right, Memberone. Eliminating leaf blowers would cost gardeners nothing, while having the added benefit of protecting them from high frequency hearing loss, inhalation of pollutants, and back injury. Why we impose these horrible machines on them just so they can blow dirt around is beyond me. Pay for an extra half hour and let them use a rake, for Pete’s sake. Healthier for everyone.

Like this comment
Posted by Sensible
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Sep 12, 2019 at 9:08 am

Anyone who thinks "a rake and broom" can replace air-blowers for removing fallen debris in the their yard are sadly mistaken. Try raking or sweeping fallen leaves or Redwood fronds from any patch of ground-cover or ivy. Doesn't work! Blowers are an essential tool but the decibel level MUST be limited by law. The town of Burlingame has stickers its public works manager will apply to any gardener's blower when they bring it in for a decibel test. That's sensible and effective. Problem solved.

4 people like this
Posted by westatherton
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Sep 12, 2019 at 10:19 am

westatherton is a registered user.

Large commercial landscape firms seem to train their staff to use leaf blowers properly. They are designed to be used like a broom or rake. Most of the gardeners in Atherton seem to be smaller crews that are independently operated. Many of the gardeners working in crews in Atherton use the leaf blowers indiscriminately. They keep the blower on continuously, not in short bursts, and they blow anything and everything off the property that they are assigned to, and often times its just dirt that they are moving around. They are understandably in a hurry but they get noise blocking headmuffs so they are oblivious.

This is true for my own gardener, a very nice independent firm and staff but they come over from another city and when asked about battery powered leaf blowers they say it would be unfair to have them use them if everyone is not required to do so, especially with pressure to keep the service fees low. However I am loathe to change my gardener just because of the blower and obviously it's human nature to only hate the neighbor's leaf blower noise, not your own.

The landscape fees may go up but what is the collective price we would be willing to pay for more tranquility in our neighborhoods?

It is a reality that many residents of Atherton spend the day at home, including those who have the opportunity to work from home. It is hard to find a day in the weekdays where there is peace and quiet especially from 10am to 4pm when the gardening crews are most active.

What may make the Town Council (and Town staff) more interested is a new set of licensing fees to require garden/landscape firms in Atherton to get permitted, as well as penalties that would be leviable against firms who violate the Town policies.

This is a huge market which is obvious when seeing the sheer number of compost bins that are along the street on a typical Atherton home. All of those leaves came from somewhere.

I am strongly supportive of the Town Council taking the time to look at this issue and compare what other neighboring municipalities have done.

2 people like this
Posted by Snipview
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 12, 2019 at 11:06 am

whatever, MEMBERONE, rather than dragging the President into this, why don't you ask your gardener to use battery powered leaf blowers as some of us have done?

2 people like this
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 12, 2019 at 5:29 pm

Dearest Snipview,
Member "whatever" initiated the discussion about our POTUS. I merely clarified an issue.
More important than that: I do NOT have a gardner. And I do not use a blower of any type and my landscaping looks just fine.
Please tell me what the difference between a batt'y operated blower and an electric or gas powered blower is when it comes to elevating carcinogens in the air...for days.
Look within yourself before you make assumptions about others.

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