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L.A. Ban on Leaf Blowers Takes Effect

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Shiny rakes and trusty brooms made their grudging appearance on lawns and in gardens throughout Los Angeles Tuesday, though some scofflaws fired up leaf blowers despite a new citywide ban against the gas-powered machines.

As gardeners from Pacific Palisades to San Pedro bemoaned a productivity slowdown on the day the ban took effect, more than 500 of their compatriots swept into downtown and to City Hall to demand a one-year moratorium on the new law for further study of its impact.

Noise-weary residents were more enthusiastic--even though homeowners are subject to the same stiff fines as gardeners if anyone uses a blower on their property.

“I hate [leaf blowers],” said Lea Friedman of Hancock Park, admitting that her gardener uses a blower, though she has urged him to swap it for a hose. “They make too much noise and they smell.”

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Said Joel Busch, a 37-year resident of Pacific Palisades: “It’s been loud. It’s a reminder of human insanity every time they do it. It blows everything in the air. I’m so glad it’s over.”

Not so fast. As Los Angeles joined 40 California cities to restrict the blowers because of noise and air pollution, city officials acknowledged Tuesday that they have no plan in place to enforce it.

The law prohibits use of blowers within 500 feet of a residence, and imposes fines of up to $1,000 and jail terms of up to six months for gardeners and homeowners who violate it.

A Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said written guidelines for enforcement and officer training regarding the ordinance--which was passed in December--are still being prepared.

According to a memo from the city’s chief legislative analyst’s office, the main responsibility for enforcement belongs to the LAPD’s Noise Enforcement Unit, which has special decibel readers to measure the machines’ volume. But that unit has only four people in the field, which means patrol officers would have to juggle enforcement of the leaf-blower ban along with other responsibilities, including responding to emergencies.

“We’ve got 9,000 officers’ ears all trained, 18,000 ears finely tuned to the offending sound,” joked Officer Eduardo Funes of the LAPD press office. “Right now, I don’t hear [any], so I’m doing a very good job [of enforcement].”

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Funes said no one would be cited until the training and enforcement guidelines are completed.

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The gardeners who protested at City Hall said they hoped that the city would repeal the law before enforcement begins. Not to do so, they said, would compromise the quality of life in Los Angeles.

“If you want clean lawns, L.A.--if L.A. wants beautiful gardens--you have to accept minimal disturbance,” said Adrian Alvarez of the Assn. of Latin American Gardeners, standing in front of a sea of colleagues wearing bright green T-shirts.

“Many people have the nerve to say gardeners are lazy,” Alvarez said. “I dare any City Council member, for one day, to perform the job of a gardener and see if they have time left for happy hour.”

Indeed, gardeners citywide had already begun to enter a new world--one of push brooms and garden hoses, rakes and silence. Without the leaf blowers strapped on their backs, relatively simple tasks had suddenly become more demanding and time-consuming.

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Gardeners said Tuesday was their longest workday in recent memory.

“We’re behind about an hour and a half,” said Alfredo Gomez as he hosed down a driveway in the Los Feliz area (hosing sidewalks is also illegal in Los Angeles, a law left over from the drought).

Contemplating the first day of life without the leaf blower, Gomez estimated that he would have to work as long as an hour extra on each lawn. With 10 houses to mow and tend each day, the outlook was grim.

“We’re going to lose money,” he said. “If not, eventually the customer is going to lose money because it’s going to take us longer and we might have to raise the price.”

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On nearby Hobart Street, the sound of metal rakes scraping against concrete punctuated the air as Supriano Mercado and his partner gathered leaves in piles on the sidewalk.

“I respect the law,” Mercado said, estimating that his work time would double without the blowers. “If they don’t want us to use it, we won’t use it.”

Miguel Gomez handles 60 homes, including some in Pacific Palisades.

“I can do whatever people want. If they want me to do it leaf by leaf, I can, but they will have to pay,” Gomez said. “It’s like someone telling you, there’s your car, but now you have to do your job with a horse.”

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While gardeners universally disapproved of the new law, all seemed aware of it. They said they had followed the developments on the news, or learned of it from their clients.

Henry Shimbashi, a 40-year veteran of gardening who said he has used blowers for half his career, went to City Hall to protest the proposed ban at public hearings.

“Only three [lawmakers] listened to me. The other ones didn’t like me,” Shimbashi lamented as he labored over a Chatsworth lawn with broom and rake. “Business is going to go down. I don’t like it.”

Most said they would grudgingly obey the law, fearful of the potential fines. But Jesus Escalera, 26, wasn’t so worried.

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Escalera received a $60 ticket a year ago for using a blower in Santa Monica, but said he would plead ignorance of the Los Angeles law if caught again. So with the gas motor announcing his defiance to the neighborhood, he boldly blew fallen leaves off the sidewalk.

“It would take three or four hours to clean this with a rake,” said Escalera, pointing to dead leaves dispersed throughout a flower patch. “With the blower it takes five minutes.”

Others, such as Rafael Rodriguez, had prepared for the dreaded day. On Friday he purchased two push brooms.

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Councilman Mike Hernandez said he would consider asking his colleagues next week to invoke a moratorium of at least six months on the ordinance. That would give gardeners more time to work with manufacturers to develop alternative tools--including a $35 gadget that converts the offensive blowers into the more accepted leaf vacuums--and also give the city time to ready an enforcement plan, Hernandez said.

Other lawmakers pointed out that the law’s author and chief backer, Marvin Braude, had retired and left the council, leaving the legislation without a leader.

“I tried to do it before, but Marvin wouldn’t let me,” Hernandez said of his plans to make the restrictions more amenable to gardeners. “Now he’s not here. I’ll try it again.”

Ann D’Amato, an aide to Mayor Richard Riordan, said city staff have met several times with gardeners to try and work out a compromise and would continue to do so. Riordan spokesman Steve Sugerman said the mayor would agree to the group’s demands for a face-to-face meeting.

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Leaders of the Assn. of Latin American Gardeners also vowed to keep trying. They wound through the streets around City Hall for an hour Tuesday, chanting in Spanish: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now” and “Gardeners, united, will conquer.”

After the noisy march and a news conference that filled the City Hall steps, hundreds of gardeners and their families milled about on the government’s landmark lawn in a vigil they promised would last until late Tuesday night.

“This is a workday. The gardeners are here, losing a day’s work, because they know they’ll lose more” because of the ordinance, Alvarez said. “We want to give the City Council a second chance.”

Alvarez said the city is hypocritical because it recently purchased 100 leaf blowers for park workers. But the ordinance only bans blowers in residential neighborhoods, so gardeners in larger city parks are not affected.

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Others also complained about the leaf vacuums, saying that they are more dangerous than blowers. Many said jobs would now take twice as long--or cost twice as much.

“We’ll have to hire more people, and the customers aren’t going to want to pay more,” Jaime Aleman said.

“It’s already passed, but it’s not [too] late,” he said. “We can rework it.”

Time staff writers Jose Cardenas and Joe Mozingo and correspondent Susan McAllister contributed to this report.

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