Atherton residents have conflicting opinions about limiting gas-powered equipment use in town, with some saying they can't do their yard work without them and others pointing to the health impacts caused by the devices.
After hearing public feedback, Atherton council members tabled a proposed ordinance to put more limits on gas-powered garden equipment last month. It likely won't come back to the council until the end of 2022, according to Town Manager George Rodericks. Council members would like the ordinance to become effective once the state begins offering rebates for electric leaf blower purchases around January 2023, he said.
During a Feb. 16 meeting, town staff proposed limiting use of the devices on Spare the Air days, limiting use to daytime hours on weekdays and banning two-stroke leaf blowers — that tend to produce more pollutants than four-stroke blowers — after Jan. 1, 2023, according to a town staff report. The state is banning the sale of gas-powered small engines beginning on Jan. 1, 2024.
Last year, 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.
Emily Conn, chair of the environmental programs committee, said she is "frustrated" and "disheartened" with the pushback to a gas-powered leaf blower ban in town. She said the proposed ordinance seemed like a "half measure in light of the health effects and climate risks associated with pouring additional gas into our lungs and into the atmosphere."
Over 200 residents participated in a poll about the proposed changes. Some 54% supported the changes, while 46% opposed them.
Widespread interest in the topic is evident from the number of comments submitted to the City Council expressing opinions on limiting gas-powered equipment in town. With 30 comments, the leaf blower issues generated far more input than most council agenda items normally receive.
Some commenters said electric leaf blowers don't have the power or battery life to clear their larger properties. Residents expressed concern about the cost of buying new equipment for gardeners. Resident Smith McKeithen called it a "regulatory overreach."
Conn fired back, saying the burden should be on the residents to buy the electric blowers, not on the gardeners.
"Residents in the most expensive ZIP code in America aren't willing to spend the $99 to $200, which is the cost of an electric blower at Home Depot, to reduce noise and air pollution for our children?" she asked. "Children who are already going to be forced to confront the climate crisis previous generations have saddled them with."
Councilwoman Diana Hawkins-Manuelian said the proposed ordinance didn't go far enough and she'd like to see gas-powered leaf blowers banned entirely.
"This (ban) has been in place with cities all around us," she said, noting that nearby towns like Redwood City given incentives to residents to switch to electric blowers by setting aside money for a gas-powered leaf blower buy-back program. "I'm disappointed we haven't made a decision on this."
Mayor Rick DeGolia said in an email this week that he thinks there needs to be a systematic way for residents and gardeners to make a transition from gas to electric-powered leaf blowers.
"This needs to be set up over a fairly lengthy period of time, so that there is good information and education shared and it needs to allow for a rebate program to incentivize residents and gardeners to turn in gas-powered leaf blowers for those that are powered by electricity," he said. "For that to work, we need to evaluate what other cities have done and learn from where their programs were successful and from where they weren't successful. In the long run, I believe that any conversion from gas-powered systems and appliances to those powered by electricity is going to have to be led by the state because this is a much larger issue than individual municipalities can realistically succeed at."
Stanford pediatric cardiologist Dr. David Axelrod, who lives on the border of Menlo Park and Atherton, told the council that he would like to see the devices banned "immediately" because of the health effects of air and noise pollution.
"I appreciate that there are important economic, political and societal implications of imposing an immediate ban on GPLB (gas-powered leaf blower) use," he said in a letter, which he initially submitted to the Menlo Park City Council in the fall. "I will trust experts in these respective fields to offer a creative and equitable proposal that addresses the needs of the workforce using the GPLBs and the community who needs their yards and fields kept tidy."
He said that the ban will also help protect the health of the gardeners, workers and citizens using the devices and inhaling the gas and particulate matter as they work. "It is our duty — in fact a mandate for our city — to protect our children and banning the use of GPLBs is one small step that will put us on the right side of history," Axelrod wrote.
Gas-powered leaf blowers burn a mixture of oil and gasoline, and, unlike cars, they have no exhaust filter or catalytic converters, releasing 300 times as much hydrocarbon than most cars and trucks, he noted. The emissions contain carcinogens such as uncombusted gasoline, benzene, formaldehyde and ozone.
Mayor Rick DeGolia said he thinks it's a good health provision to put limits on gas-powered leaf blowers, but it's not going to be easy to enforce.
Use of leaf blowers in nearby towns
Portola Valley banned gas-powered leaf blowers in 2019, with a delay in enforcement until 2021.
In 2020, the Woodside Town Council adopted an ordinance limiting the hours that commercial leaf blowers can be used to the town's construction hours.
In Palo Alto, where gas-powered leaf blowers have been banned since 2005, residents have called for more enforcement of the ordinance.
Menlo Park reversed a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers two decades ago, but the City Council began revisiting the issue in late 2021.