by Jenna Fisher

November 11, 2015

Brookline seems to have a love/hate relationship with leaf blowers.

And next week, elected Town Meeting members will vote on whether gas-powered leaf blowers should be mostly nixed, and whether the town’s public works commissioner should have the power to temporarily grant leaf blowers open season if there’s a weather event that necessitates extra cleanup.

Brookline already has a partial leaf blower ban in place. Gas-powered leaf blowers are only allowed in Brookline between March 15 and May 15, and then again from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., during weekdays, or between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., on weekends and holidays. All leaf blowers must comply with the noise level limit in the Noise Control By-Law, which is currently 67 decibels, measured at 50 ft.

And the issue of leaf blowers is being studied and debated outside Town Meeting, too.

After two separate warrant articles looking to make changes to the town’s noise violation regulations came to Town Meeting last year and were voted down, the selectmen decided there was enough interest and confusion surrounding the laws to merit setting up a committee to study whether there was something that needed to change.

The committee looking into the town’s noise bylaws recently made 12 recommendations to the Board of Selectmen over the summer. In addition to one urging that both the leaf blower operator, as well as the property owner, get fined for violations, the committee recommends that leaf blower operators register with the Police Department.

The Board of Selectmen has taken some initial steps to implement the recommendations of the Noise Bylaw Review Committee, said Selectman Ben Franco. Efforts are currently underway to improve public education through pamphlets, social media and a dedicated police liaison to the landscaper community, and the Selectmen will go over the rest of the recommendations after Town Meeting, according to Selectman Ben Franco.

“I think it’s a very hard issue to summarize,” Sean Lynn-Jones, chairman of the Advisory Committee, told the TAB. “The [Advisory Committee’s] recommendation was essentially to stick close to the status quo instead of going for an imposition of a total ban or an expansion in the periods in which leaf blowers could be used. So these were incremental changes recommended by the Advisory Committee. There’s still a wide range of views on these.”

Warrant Article 10

Town Meeting member Richard Nangle of Precinct 15 proposed to ban leaf blowers outright, but after some pushback, he brought a revised article to Selectmen to ban only fuel-powered leaf blowers and exempt town property and large properties, such as golf courses. It failed to get the board’s support.

“I continue to feel that the major issue most of us have is the noise,” said Selectman Nancy Daly at a recent Board of Selectmen meeting. “And I think Selectman Franco and the report that all of you worked on to get better education out there about the fact that we require these lower-decibel machines is really the way to go here.”

Daly told the petitioner Nangle and the Selectmen that waiving a ban on large properties didn’t seem fair.

“I feel like for us to say that while the town can use them, but Pine Manor can’t … there’s a lot of big properties in town, and we’re using them at our schools and our parks and things. I’m not comfortable. I think we need them and I’m not comfortable saying we can use them and no one else can.”

As she finished her comment Daly received applause from two rows of mainly landscaping contractors sitting in the audience.

Nangle, who was a member of a task force selectmen put together after last year’s Town Meeting to look into the town’s noise bylaws and make recommendations, told the TAB he wanted to see an outright ban, but one step at a time.

“You take what you can get, and it’s incremental,” he said.

Brookline, because it’s so progressive, he said, has a chance of getting rid of leaf blowers, which he argues are responsible for environmental pollution as well as noise pollution.

“We already kicked the door open four years ago. We had all these arguments four years ago, about the harm that gas-powered leaf blowers had. So they banned them for four months [out of the year].”

Nangle sites health studies and green alternatives as reason for the ban.

“You can use battery-powered leaf blowers,” he said. “You have effective leaf blowers. Sure, they’re not as powerful as gas, but what’s the trade off, what’s the trade off to live in a civilized society?”

Noise pollution advocates agree. Although motorcycles with adjusted mufflers are the number one offenders, lawn equipment, including lawn mowers and leaf blowers, come up next.

“A lot of people don’t realize leaf blowers are a contributor to climate change,” said Ted Rueter, director of the advocacy group Noise Free America. “Running a leaf blower for one hour gives out the equivalent emissions as driving a car for 350 miles.”

Selectmen, like the Advisory Committee, didn’t reject the article outright. Both voted “no action” on Warrant Article 10. The Board of Selectman noted they wanted to wait to see about implementing some of the recommendations a committee looking into the town’s noise bylaws recently made to the Board of Selectmen.

Warrant Article 11

This proposal has support from landscapers and contractors who work in Brookline. It would allow the DPW commissioner to temporarily lift the current winter and summer bans in the event that severe weather – such as last winter’s endless snow or last summer’s hail storm – makes cleanup necessary during the off-season.

Selectmen voted to support an updated version of Warrant Article 11, which originally proposed making the leaf blower season longer but was edited to only give power to the commissioner of public works to temporarily waive the ban.

Public Works Commissioner Andrew Pappastergion said he was all for the article.

“It gives us more flexibility,” he said. “I think we had the power to do that anyway under emergency, but this is fine.”

Faith Michaels, the Brookline resident and landscaper sponsoring the article, said after the long winter cut into the leaf-blowing season, it made yard cleanup extremely difficult and expensive for residents.

“Homeowners really don’t realize how much this will affect them negatively in their pocketbooks when they have to start paying the labor costs of people sweeping up their driveways or sidewalks,” she told the TAB.

Michaels said homeowners and landscape professionals can do a better job more quickly when they are able to use leaf blowers.

Michaels also said that the first legislation required the use of low-decibel (67 dBA or less) leaf blowers was not well publicized or enforced, so it’s difficult to tell if it was effective. The partial ban bylaw was also confusing and not well publicized, or well enforced until recently, she said, adding that the town should give the existing laws a chance to be enforced before putting a total ban on leaf blowers.

For the sake of comparison, Michaels said that the new “quiet” leaf blowers average 65 decibels. The typical conversation averages 60 decibels. A lawnmower averages 90-100 decibels. A weed-whacker averages 95 decibels. A crying baby averages 110 decibels. An air conditioner averages 65 decibels.

‘High stakes’

Nangle compared landscapers to restaurant owners opposed to banning cigarette smoking indoors years ago when Brookline was among the first to pass legislation against that.

“They fought us saying they’d lose business, but in fact it was the opposite; people came to Brookline because of the ban,” he said.

The leaf blower fight is a high stakes one, he said.

“If a town like Brookline mass bans them, other towns will follow,” he said. “This is like the SuperBowl for these guys. They have to win here. If they don’t win here, places like Newton will follow.”

In Newton, leaf blowers can be used year-round from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., weekends and holidays. A current proposal would put a seasonal ban on the use of all leaf blowers, park and recreation facilities exempt.

More than 50 communities in California have some type of ban on leaf blowers, according to a 2010 Consumer Reports study. That same study noted some type of restriction on more than 20 municipalities in New York at that time, as well.