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Leaf blowers banned in N.J. towns after work-from-home neighbors complain about noise

NJ.com logo NJ.com 5/12/2021 Avalon Zoppo, nj.com

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Montclair councilor-at-large Peter Yacobellis says one complaint in particular has flooded his email inbox: gripes about noisy leaf blowers.

With more people working from home, the inescapable buzzing sound has become the soundtrack of the pandemic in some neighborhoods. And a few towns in New Jersey are now limiting or further restricting what months the machines can be used.

Proponents of bans on gas-powered leaf blowers say a quieter neighborhood isn’t the only plus. Emissions released by the machines hurt air quality, high-decibel sounds damage hearing and pollen, pesticides, mold and other particles being blown around impact public health, Yacobellis said. Meanwhile, landscapers are pushing back against the new rules.

“It’s been pretty fascinating to witness that it is the thing that gets more people to go to their computer and look up my email address and send me a note than anything else,” Yacobellis said. “You’re feeling it, you’re hearing it. It gets people over that hump, to say ‘I’m going to reach out to my local council person and tell them how I feel.’”

Earlier this year, Montclair’s council voted to expand its already existing ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers during certain parts of the year for residents and landscapers. The equipment can now be used between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15 and March 15 and May 15 when leaves typically need to be cleaned, Yacobellis said, and violators won’t be given a verbal warning for their first offense anymore. In 2020, code enforcement recorded 51 violations of the previous ordinance, according to the township.

It’s not just the 38,000-resident township of Montclair.

The endless vroom-vroom noises have created a dust-up in other suburban municipalities during the pandemic, too, with Summit and Maplewood each taking action in recent months. The specifics of each ordinance vary.

In Summit, officials passed a pilot program restricting the devices from June 1 to Aug. 31, 2021, not during spring and fall when leaves are collected more frequently. Residents, landscapers and the city’s public works department are all subject to the ordinance. Residents or businesses can apply for an exemption waiver to use the machines for a limited time, under special or unforeseen circumstances.

The city, which noticed complaints years ago, created an ad-hoc committee to research the topic beforehand and how it has been implemented in other towns, said city spokeswoman Amy Cairns. She said leaf blowers are mainly used to remove grass clippings from sidewalks and driveways during the summer, and a ban starting in June would not seriously impact summer business.

The move prompted support and backlash from members of the community at the town’s April 6 council meeting. Cairns said since the start of the pandemic, the council received 22 complaints about leaf blower noise.

Resident Anna Fredette, the daughter of a local landscaper, said many construction crews, gutter cleaners and lawn service workers will need to purchase other equipment to complete their jobs, which creates a cost. She also questioned how the ordinance would be enforced, and what kind of evidence would be needed to cite a violator.

“Who’s going to get up on a roof and take the leaves out of your gutter by hand? What other tools do they have to do this type of work? It’s going to affect a lot more than just landscapers,” she said.

Another resident backed the ban, saying gas-powered leaf blowers can harm public health.

“The U.S. EPA did a study on gas powered garden and lawn equipment, and found that there are prevalent source of toxic and carcinogenic emissions that cause a range of cancers and serious heart lung and neurologic issues,” she said.

There’s opposition from landscapers, who say gas-powered leaf blowers are necessary equipment to keep lawns pristine and a part of suburban life.

Gail Woolcott, executive director of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, denies claims that gas-powered leaf blowers threaten public health and said all outdoor power equipment must adhere to federal emissions requirements before being sold.

And replacing gas-powered leaf blowers with battery-powered ones is expensive, she said, and electric blowers are just as loud. Contractors would need to buy a number of chargers, in addition to the blowers, to allow a crew to work for a full day without interruption. Any ban, Woolcott said, should apply to residents, contractors and the towns themselves.

“It is simply not possible to offer the same level of service at the same price to customers using battery-powered equipment. Ergo, why most ‘eco-friendly’ contractors will charge a premium for battery-powered only services,” Woolcott said.

Woolcott wondered why townships are singling out leaf blowers, and not other gas-powered tools like chainsaws and hedge trimmers, which release emissions too.

The question was answered by a doctor during Maplewood Township’s May 4 committee meeting, where officials extended an existing ban on gas-powered leaf blowers by two weeks, now from May 1 to September 30 each year. (Litigation filed in 2017 against Maplewood by the New Jersey Landscape Contractor Association over the town’s ordinance is still pending in federal court).

Dr. Hal Strelnick, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said gas-powered leaf blowers often use two-stroke internal combustion engines instead of four-stroke engines, so they are less fuel efficient and create more noise. He said the devices run on a combination of gasoline and oil, and emit carbon monoxide, particulate matter that aggravates asthma and cancer-causing hydrocarbons, including benzene, formaldehyde and butadiene.

Overall, Committeewoman Nancy Adams said there’s an “unrealistic need for the perfect lawn,” and that grass clippings, pollinators, and soil shouldn’t be blown away.

“Most of the stuff could just be left on the grass and in their landscaping,” Adams said. “We need to kind of look at our practices for maintaining our properties a little more carefully and what’s really necessary.”

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Avalon Zoppo may be reached at azoppo2@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AvalonZoppo.

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