Leaf Blowers: A Whirlwind of Controversy

Times Staff Writer

'We threw away the water hoses and never lifted a rake again.'

Jeff Garcia, Orange park superintendent

The leaf blower, that handy little machine that huffs and puffs and blows your driveway down, is creating a whirlwind of controversy in California.

Banned in some cities, including Beverly Hills and Carmel, the machine is facing a similar fate in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, where angry citizens want to get rid of the gardener's best friend.

The ban-the-blower forces complain not only that the tools are noisy and smoky but that they scatter more dust than they collect. Professional gardeners, reluctant to throw in the Space Age broom, maintain that the tools have not only revolutionized their business but have helped keep America beautiful.

Last year alone, more than a half million of the gas-generated garden tools were sold nationally, according to the industry, mostly in Sun Belt states, particularly California. "Year-round sunshine means millions of leaves, which in turn means millions of leaf blowers," said Bob Krause, a Los Angeles distributor.

It was city governments in California that helped make the machines trendy in the first place. During the water shortage of 1976-77, municipal park departments purchased the blowers and encouraged citizens to do the same instead of washing down driveways and walks with water.

'So Much Emotion'

They soon found that they had created a monster.

"I've been afraid to put leaf blowers on the agenda. They've already caused so much emotion I just know it's going to be one of those issues," said Santa Barbara City Councilman Hal Conklin.

The hearing is scheduled for January.

Leafy Beverly Hills banned the machines in 1978. "They raised too much dust and too many tempers," said Fred Cunningham, community services director.

Other cities have embraced the leaf blowers.

"We threw away the water hoses and never lifted a rake again," said Jeff Garcia, park superintendent in the city of Orange.

He estimated that the blowers cut the park crew's leaf-gathering chores by 80%. "They strap the packs on their backs, jump into golf carts and buzz around the walkways blowing the debris into big piles. You can't do that with a rake," he said with enthusiasm. The city, despite some complaints over the years, has refused to ban the blowers because they save so much time and money, Garcia said.

Time and money are also the heart of the issue for the many professional gardeners who use leaf blowers at private homes, according to Robert S. Ida, spokesman for the 4,000-member Southern California Gardeners' Federation.

The federation's well-organized lobbying group has successfully turned away blower-ban efforts in several cities, including Orange and Newport Beach. It is turning its efforts to the fight in those bastions of coastal preservation, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.

The federation estimates that because of time restraints, gardeners have dropped 20% to 30% of their customers in areas where there are bans on leaf blowers. On an average, it takes about 10 minutes to gather the debris with the blower, compared to a half hour or more using a rake, Ida said. Most gardeners can clean six large yards or 10 small yards daily using the machines, which cost anywhere from $150 to $350.

The Santa Monica City Council, acting on complaints by residents, including Mayor Christine Reed, has asked its staff to look at the issue and report back early next year. Reed said the problem is particularly bad in Santa Monica because 70% of the citizens live in apartments.

"The leaf blowers get down in those underground garages and in the passageways between buildings, and it's deafening," Reed said.

Ruth Rosen, a Santa Monica artist who works at home, said the final straw came one day when she was working and yet another leaf blower disrupted her concentration. She made up 300 pamphlets condemning the machines and distributed them in her neighborhood. The notes urged her neighbors to write to City Hall.

'Doesn't Bother People'

"I have a friend who pays her gardener $20 extra not to use them. They are dreadful, a menance," Rosen added.

Raul L. Casillas Sr., who has been a Santa Monica gardener for 37 years, believes otherwise. "At each home the blowers are only on for maybe 10 minutes. It doesn't bother people that much.

"If we have to go back to the horse-and-buggy days of brooms, I don't know what we will do. We have to make ends meet. I had just a few customers in Beverly Hills when they banned the blowers, and it hurt then."

He added angrily, "But what are they going to do? Have policeman spend all day going from yard to yard writing tickets?"

Beverly Hills has had few problems enforcing the leaf ban ordinance, Cunningham said. If there are complaints, police give the offending gardener a warning. A second offense results in a citation and a $100 fine. Police have a hard time remembering having issued even one citation.

Los Angeles has not adopted any leaf blower regulations because there have been few complaints, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said.

That doesn't mean that the councilman is a defender of the machines.

'All the Pollution'

"They aren't a pleasant device. My gardener uses one. I can't count the number of times I've been awakened by them early in the morning. And not only that, here comes all the pollution wafting through the bedroom window."

The Air Quality Management District considered banning leaf blowers in 1982 as part of an air cleanup plan for the Los Angeles Basin. Because of strong opposition from the gardeners' federation and because the gas-driven machines are such a small source of pollution, however, the idea was tabled, agency spokesman Jim Birakos said.

Some critics have suggested that electric leaf blowers would solve the problem for everyone. Gardeners, however, say that the electrical cords are unwieldy, making for slower work, and that most homes do not have outside electrical outlets.

In attempts to save the blowers from extinction, the gardener's federation has come up with a set of guidelines that it says makes more sense than banning the machines entirely. Several cities have adopted the suggestions.

Some of the guidelines require operators to use mist attachments on the machines to reduce dust, operate the machines on quieter slow speeds and prohibit use before 7 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends.

Educational Campaign

Ida of the gardeners' association acknowledged, however, that getting all gardeners to abide by such rules is not easy.

The federation has begun an educational campaign, mailing instructional pamphlets to all licensed gardeners and sending teams out into neighborhoods to talk to workers about the problem.

"Some guys think if it's loud it works better. And some don't keep their machines in good repair, causing the smoke," Ida said.

"It's like guns and automobiles. The machines aren't the problem, it's the people using the machines," he said.

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