Portola Valley has seemed noticeably quieter in the last half year. Councilman John Richards attributes the change to the town's ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers, which took effect on Jan. 23.
That doesn't mean all residents, or their gardeners, have dumped their gas-powered leaf blowers. There have been 49 complaints (including repeat offenders) of people using gas-powered leaf blowers in town as of July 8. The ban also applies to electric leaf blowers over 65 decibels. The code is flexible and there is no set fine for violations, said Town Manager Jeremy Dennis. Dennis notes the town is well-staffed to manage violations.
Some 40 people took advantage of the leaf blower trade-in program, which ran from January to June, in which residents could bring town officials their old gas-powered model and receive 40% of the cost of the electric blower up to $120. Portola Valley paid residents about $3,855 to trade in their gas-powered models, according to the town.
Portola Valley partnered with Remoov, a South San Francisco-based recycling/repurposing agency that recycles gas-powered leaf blowers.
"I know of several people in town who have stepped up to purchase electric blowers for their gardeners, or have helped finance them," said Richards, who lives near Corte Madera School, in an email. "I have also personally handed out the flyers announcing the buyback program to a number of gardeners who didn't seem to be aware of the new ordinance but who have since made the switch. … The tendency is to continue with the long tradition in Portola Valley of relying on friendly neighborhood persuasion."
Mayor Maryann Derwin agreed that it seems quieter in town since the ban, she said in an email.
Portola Valley's recent ordinance is part of a regional effort to ban, or limit use, of the devices, which are known to create excessive noise and disseminate toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde and hydrocarbons. Los Altos banned gas-powered leaf blowers in 1991, Palo Alto in 2000, and Los Gatos in 2014. Last year, Woodside adopted an ordinance limiting the hours that commercial leaf blowers can be used to the town's construction hours.
Atherton starts with town pilot, officials more hesitant to institute a blanket ban
Atherton council members are a little more skeptical about banning gas-powered leaf blowers, though some are passionate about making some changes to reduce the noise and spread of pollutants from gas-powered blowers. At its July 21 meeting, the council directed the Environmental Programs Committee to create an education campaign on the effects of gas-powered blowers and draft an ordinance with proposed restrictions.
Nearly two years ago, Atherton officials began examining how to manage leaf blowers in town. In January, council members stopped short of a ban and opted to institute a pilot project to test battery-powered leaf blowers in Holbrook-Palmer Park and on public streets in town. The City Council also voted to restrict the use of leaf blowers on Spare the Air days through fall 2022.
• The electric blower is a "bit quieter" and lighter than their gas-powered blower
• The battery life was "substantially" lower than the unit's guide indicated (180 minutes versus just 15 to 20 minutes for the 5.0 Ah battery and 30 to 40 minutes for the 7.5 Ah battery). If sufficiently charged, it would just be adequate to blow the main pathway loop around the park if there were limited heavy debris or wet areas.
• The electric blower effectively blew debris off the tennis court, but appeared to be underpowered in moving heavy debris, larger piles and wet material as compared to the gas-powered blower.
• The police department measured the battery-powered leaf blowers ranged in noise levels from 60 to 80 decibels versus about 70 to 85 decibels from gas-powered blowers. The reason for the only slight difference is because the battery blower operated at a lower decibel level and at a higher pitch, lowering its perceived noise level.
The town's mowing subcontractor will continue to use its gas-powered blower to clear mowed grass from the pathways and other areas.
Atherton resident and council response to the pilot
Residents shared their hesitancy about banning gas-powered leaf blowers in town. John Maulbetsch said at the July 21 meeting that gas-powered blowers have "more power" and "work better."
"Do the residents care more about the noise than the performance?" he asked the council.
Residents Patti and Ross Spezzaferro said as master gardeners they know that leaf blowers can damage soil health, but it would take a lot more time to maintain their gardens without gas-powered blowers. They also said residents may have to pay more for gardening if the work takes longer.
Ross said he supports reducing greenhouse gas emissions so he is "conflicted" because electric leaf blowers are "nowhere near as powerful" as gas-powered blowers. With the size of yards in Atherton, gardeners would need to have portable generators handy where there are no outlets to keep the blowers going for longer.
"It's nice to encourage them (electric-powered blowers) where they make sense, but it wouldn't make sense to ban gas-powered leaf blowers because they're so practical," Ross said.
Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and Councilman Rick DeGolia said a rake and broom could do the same job as a leaf blower without spreading exhaust generated by the blowers.
Councilwoman Diana Hawkins-Manulian noted the town can make a lot of changes short of banning all gas-powered blowers, such as limiting times residents can use the blowers, dictating different rules for residents versus commercial properties (such as the schools in town or the Menlo Circus Club), and banning two-stroke leaf blowers that tend to produce more pollutants than four-stroke blowers.
"When the air is full of ashes after a fire, people are blowing all sorts of toxic ashes," she explained. "There's already all sorts of information about how it affects allergies and health issues."