A few days ago, as I was composing a profound, but now-forgotten thought, I was jolted out of my reverie by the angry roar of a leaf blower across the street from my house. After a brief respite, during which I managed to recover my concentration and return to work, my ears were assaulted by the roar another one, this time down the street. Then another, now on the next block.
In frustration, I posted the following comment on our neighborhood blog, NextDoor.com:
May I take this opportunity to post my annual reminder that gas-powered leaf blowers are ILLEGAL in Palo Alto. "Illegal" means against the law, banned, criminal, forbidden, lawless, outlawed, prohibited, proscribed, taboo, unauthorized, unlawful, wrongful and otherwise verboten. If any part of that is unclear, overly technical, or too legalistic, allow me to translate: DON'T DO IT!
The City has determined that these machines are noisy, dangerous and polluting, and whether or not one agrees, we are a nation (and a city) of laws. If your gardeners are using illegal, noisy, dangerous, polluting gas-powered leaf blowers, may I respectfully suggest that you kick in a few extra bucks to help them finance the transition to legal, quiet, safe and non-polluting electric ones? These guys work very hard, don't get paid very much, and it is ultimately the homeowners, who aid and abet their criminal activity, who are culpable.
Thank you for respecting your wheezing, nerve-wracked, sleep-deprived, law-abiding neighbors by hiring gardeners who promise to do the same.
Within a few hours, I had received 54 responses — 53 of them positive. The sole dissenter opined that "It's not that big of a deal." Apparently for most of us, it is, and it has been for a very long time. Since then, people have continued to reply to my post with analytical, anecdotal and epidemiological evidence of just how disruptive and dangerous these machines are (ever wonder why their operators wear face masks and earplugs)? Neighbors reported on respiratory and sleep problems; they suggested environmentally friendly alternatives; they recorded their frustrations at the inability of the city to enforce its own ordinance prohibiting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in residential neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, as the vast majority of my respondents attested — despite hundreds of complaints every year — the 2005 ordinance has proven ineffectual and unworkable. The best we can do is call the police, who typically arrive long after the culprits have left the scene (possibly because our police department actually has more important things to do). Our "311" service appears to be marginally more effective, but not much.
Many of the people who responded to my plea expressed sympathy for the gardeners, as I do. I doubt that many of these folks live in Palo Alto and are even aware of the local ordinance. Many of them simply work for landscaping companies that provide their equipment. It is for that reason that I am advocating a redirection of our efforts. Let's take the fight to the homeowners and property managers who hire these gardeners: Most likely, many of these homeowners are not present during the day and are unaware that their gardeners are in violation of the law.
There would seem to be a simple, and even obvious remedy to what is widely recognized to be a public nuisance for some, a chronic health hazard for others and an environmental calamity for everyone. Homeowners and property managers should be issued a citation, perhaps preceded by a one-time warning but followed by a real penalty. A couple of $300 fines would provide a strong incentive for property owners to require their gardeners to transition to electric machines — or rakes! Gardeners are usually off to their next job by the time the police arrive. Houses and apartment buildings, however, aren't going anywhere, and in the age of the ubiquitous cell-phone camera, it would be easy to document the time, date and location of the offense. A mandatory fine should do the trick — think of those unwelcome notices that inform drivers that they have run a red light on El Camino or been recorded using the carpool lane on the Bay Bridge.
I do not wish to enter into a discussion here of why some of our fellow citizens find it necessary to blow toxic particulate matter from one side of the street to the other; or to document the fact that more people died in the 20th century from air pollution than from World War I and World War II combined; or to cite medical evidence of the correlation between noise and dust pollution and arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, reduced cognitive performance and endothelial dysfunction; or to enlist the authority of the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society or the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Rather, this statement is limited to suggesting a practical, pragmatic, revenue-generating solution to a problem that has plagued our community but remains unresolved.
The City Council has recognized the negative impact of gas-powered leaf blowers upon our health, our environment and our quality of life. Furthermore, the council is aware of the overwhelming popular support for banning them from our city. So I'd like to ask our elected officials: Would you finally please act upon it?
Barry Katz is a longtime resident of Palo Alto. He has been singularly ineffective in his campaigns against ugly buildings, greedy landlords, useless parking structures and other community issues.