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State Ban on Leaf Blower Bans Comes Surprisingly Back to Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than a decade of fighting to bar leaf blowers from the gardens of Los Angeles, activists declared victory in January when the City Council approved a ban on the gas-powered variety.

Several months later, they breathed a collective sigh of relief as an attempt to wipe out local leaf blower bans died in the state Legislature.

Now, like something out of “Night of the Living Dead,” the ban on bans has returned to the Capitol and appears to be marching toward passage. And while it is targeted at giant Los Angeles, the bill also would kill Laguna Beach’s long-standing ban on blowers.

“It’s baaack!” said Bill Mabie, aide to state Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat and father of both anti-ban measures--the dead bill and the resurrected one.

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Polanco used a common behind-the-scenes technique known as “gut and amend”: taking a languishing bill, removing its contents and transplanting something different into it.

He took over a jury service bill and substituted his plan for letting cities set decibel limits rather than impose blower bans. From a politician’s outlook, this approach is an expedient way to leapfrog potential hazards, such as hostile committees.

Thus he may avoid the committee where his previous bill banning bans died in May--Senate Appropriations--because the bill he took over had already been approved there.

Laguna Beach, the only Orange County city so far to ban leaf blowers, reacted to Polanco’s bill with dismay.

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“We are opposed to the bill, and we have written several letters to our local legislators explaining how it would disrupt our city’s program,” City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said.

The City Council voted to ban leaf blowers in 1993, after residents complained that they create noise and dust, and blow debris onto neighboring properties.

There was some opposition to the bill, mostly from gardeners, when the ordinance was being considered. But since the ban was implemented, there has been widespread cooperation, Frank said.

“I don’t think we have ever had to cite anybody” for using a leaf blower, he said.

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Frank said the city itself was the single biggest user of blowers, using them to blow sand off stairs leading to the beaches and off the boardwalk at Main Beach, among other things.

The city recently began using mechanical sweepers that are much quieter than blowers, Frank said. They suck up sand, dirt, debris and glass instead of scattering it, he said.

Most of the gardeners’ complaints stemmed from the belief that banning blowers would drive their costs up. But Laguna Beach residents, for the most part, didn’t seem to mind paying a little extra to avoid being awakened by the noise and having debris blown into their yard, Frank said.

“We don’t even allow electric-powered leaf blowers,” Frank said, saying that while some believe they are more enviromentally friendly than the ubiquitous gas-powered blowers, they still blow dust and dirt around.

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Many Orange County cities, including Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Tustin, La Palma and Irvine, regulate leaf blowers by limiting decibel levels and hours of use, but haven’t banned them outright.

Huntington Beach, however, will consider a ban as early as Aug. 3. Councilman Dave Sullivan has asked the city attorney to prepare an ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers. Sullivan said the fumes released by blowers aggravate health problems for residents with allergies or asthma.

The bill also caught supporters of the Los Angeles ban off guard.

Joan Graves, a Pacific Palisades resident who worked more than a decade on the Los Angeles measure, which took effect in February, said she left town for a vacation at the end of June, not knowing an anti-ban bill was scheduled for a committee hearing July 1.

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“It came as such a shock, because I didn’t know that was even possible or legal,” said Graves, who has often testified before the City Council with her husband, actor Peter Graves.

Joan Graves and other ban proponents thought their fight was over in May, when Polanco’s promised attempt to wipe out all local blower bans died in a Senate committee. Even some seasoned politicians are squawking that Polanco’s gut-and-amend was particularly sneaky.

“It was amended without public notice or explanation,” said Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles). “It’s an evasion of what I was taught creates good law.”

Polanco shot back: “Every member who has felt passionately about a given subject has done it.”

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Polanco’s bill would affect all 20 California cities with bans, except where they have been affirmed by voters. The only such exception currently is Santa Barbara.

The bill would wipe out the state’s oldest ban, in Carmel, which has existed for 23 years, and one in Menlo Park approved on the heels of Los Angeles’ and recently suspended in favor of a November ballot measure.

There also is widespread suspicion among opponents in the Capitol and in Los Angeles that blower manufacturers are really behind Polanco’s bill. The blowers are big business in lush California--nearly a million are in operation here, half in the Los Angeles Basin.

The largest manufacturer of leaf blowers sold in the U.S.--Echo Inc. of Japan--has long pushed for decibel limits instead of bans, and is supporting the bill. Until June, the company was also the only maker advertising a machine that could meet Polanco’s proposed minimum limit of 65 decibels at 50 feet--two or three times as loud as most conversation.

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Committee analyses on the bill consistently note that it would afford Echo a virtual monopoly. Polanco chafes at the suggestion he was influenced by the company.

“The only special interest in this bill is that it protects gardeners and landscapers in maintaining a tool that is essential to them,” he said.

He figures: Why create criminals out of gardeners? Forcing manufacturers to make quieter machines, he told an Assembly committee, makes a lot more sense.

Ban backers complain that Polanco’s solution ignores other irritants--fumes, dust and air pollution. And enforcement requires catching a user in the act.

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Differences in bans from city to city also are cited by some as reason enough for local control. Some cities have total bans, others offer flexibility.

“It seems to me that questions about whether leaf blowers should be used and under what circumstances . . . should be decided by people elected at the local level,” said Assemblyman Mike Sweeney (D-Hayward), chairman of the Local Government Committee.

But he could not persuade other members of his committee to keep the state’s hands off. The bill championed by Polanco passed July 1 on a 7-3 vote and is now headed for the Assembly floor, where even opponents give it good odds because Republicans back it.

The technique Polanco used can be an expedient way to bring up legislation after the annual bill introduction deadline has passed. But occasionally, gutting and amending also averts the normal committee process, which requires bills to survive committees in both houses before graduating to each floor for a vote.

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The juror bill that Polanco used is now stripped of state cost, eliminating the need for an appropriation, so it needn’t go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which killed the ban bill before.

If all goes according to plan, Polanco’s bill could head straight from the Assembly floor to the floor of the Senate, bypassing any further chance for public comment. That does not disturb Polanco, who suggests that the subject has been amply debated in past months.

The legislation is tailor-made for the most persistent opponent of Los Angeles’ ban--Echo Inc., the firm that advertises a 65-decibel leaf blower. (Consumer Reports says its tests registered 69.5 decibels and in June a second Japanese company, Maruyama, began advertising a 62-decibel machine.)

Echo lobbyist Robin Pendergrast said he first talked with Polanco briefly in April--two months after Polanco’s original anti-ban bill was introduced--at a meeting arranged by the gardeners’ association.

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Polanco recalls the meeting but says he cannot even remember what Pendergrast looks like.

But in at least a tangential way, the idea for decibel limits originates from the company. Echo has been working to fight bans in communities around the United States for 12 years, since Pendergrast attended a Los Angeles City Council meeting at which a ban was first proposed.

Times staff writer Erika Chavez contributed to this report.


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