Twenty-three years after Menlo Park voters halted a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, the city is once again thinking of enacting one.
On Tuesday, Nov. 16, the Menlo Park City Council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Jen Wolosin absent, to set up a study session to discuss the details of a gas-powered leaf blower ban, including how it should be implemented, how it could be enforced, and what staff resources it would take to do so.
In 1998, Menlo Park voters split 45% for and 55% against Measure E, a referendum asking whether the city should adopt a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers.
In contrast, other nearby communities have bans on gas-powered leaf blowers: Los Altos has had one since 1991, Palo Alto's ban on them in residential areas took effect in 2005, and Portola Valley banned them in 2019 with a two-year delay in enforcement. Portola Valley also offered a leaf blower trade-in program in which residents could bring in their gas-powered leaf blowers to receive 40% of the cost of an electric blower, up to $120.
As of August, some Portola Valley residents said they've noticed that the town seems noticeably quieter since the ban took effect in January. In Atherton, officials haven't gone for a ban, but the town is conducting a pilot project to use battery-powered leaf blowers in Holbrook-Palmer Park and on public streets.
Recent state legislation pushed the issue further – on Oct. 9, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will phase out the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers by 2024.
The legislation, authored by Menlo Park resident and state Assemblyman Marc Berman, calls on the California Air Resources Board to, by July 2022, create policies to prohibit the sale of new "small off-road engines" by 2024, a category that includes gas-powered leaf blowers, generators, pressure washers and chainsaws.
During Tuesday's discussion, about six community members spoke in favor of enacting a ban while one person raised concerns. Those in favor of the ban included two pediatric physicians in the community who talked about the harmful health effects of leaf blowers.
David Axelrod, a pediatric cardiologist at Stanford Children's Health, said there are decades of rigorous research that describe how environmental pollutants disproportionately impact children compared to adults. They breathe faster than adults, the volume of air they breathe compared to their body weight is larger, they are closer to the ground, where pollutants are more dense, and their lungs, hearts and brains are more sensitive because they are still developing, he said.
Gas-powered leaf blowers emit harmful pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde and hydrocarbons, and propel hazardous particulates from the ground into the air, such as dust, dirt, brake lining powder from vehicles and herbicides. In addition, the noise levels they produce can increase blood pressure and stress hormone levels, he said.
"It's our duty to protect our children, and one small step to put us on the right side of history," he said.
Carlos Myers-Asencio, a 15-year-old Menlo Park resident, also supported the ban.
"Banning leaf blowers is low-hanging fruit, but its impacts are sure to be fruitful," he said.
Kathleen Daly, who runs Cafe Zoe in the Willows neighborhood, said she agreed that leaf blowers are annoying, but raised concerns about the impacts of the ban on the service workers who are tasked with maintaining the yards of Menlo Park residents. Many gardeners were out of work during at least a portion of the pandemic, and asking them to spend a significant amount of money now to swap out their tools could pose a hardship, she said.
One of the significant questions with any ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers is how to enforce the ban. In Palo Alto, residents have complained for years about the lack of enforcement – a problem that became worse last year when budget cuts prompted the city to cut a code enforcement officer position.
Mayor Drew Combs said he anticipated that the ordinance could require a full-time code enforcement officer.
City Manager Starla Jerome Robinson brought up other possible concerns, some of which emerged while the city was enforcing a ban on gardening services during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The enforcement question brings up social equity questions, such as whether gardeners or the households who hire them should be accountable for violations. The earlier gardening ban also set certain expectations in the community that the city has the resources to provide on-demand enforcement, which it does not, she said.
Council members seemed somewhat split over the timeline for passing an ordinance. Vice Mayor Betsy Nash pushed to have the ban passed quickly.
"There's so much evidence out there that it is a health and noise hazard ... and I think that it's past time that we do implement an ordinance," she said.
"I'm supportive of the ban, but also believe we need a process that reaches out to affected stakeholders," Councilman Ray Mueller said.
Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor said she supported the ordinance as well but wanted to ensure there would be adequate public outreach, including in Spanish, to make sure people are informed about the policy.
Environmental Quality Commissioner Leah Elkins said that she had tried to reach out to the Bay Area Gardeners Association to gather feedback about the proposed ordinance but hadn't heard back.
The council's discussion of a possible leaf blower ban came up as part of a larger conversation about what the city's Environmental Quality Commission should work on over the next year. Among its other priorities are to support the city's work toward its Climate Action Plan, work on preserving the city's urban tree canopy, and pursuing other "green and sustainable initiatives."
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]