If a leaf falls into the ocean and no one sees it, does it make a sound?
Yes, because chances are it got there by a leaf blower.
On any given day, the sounds of leaf blowers echo throughout Laguna Beach, up the hills and into windows like annoying mosquitoes. Pound for pound, they are perhaps the single most significant noise and air polluter ever made.
They are also illegal.
The city of Laguna Beach banned leaf blowers (both gas and electric) in 1993, but like most ordinances of this type that compete against other priorities, it's a challenge to enforce.
But there are citations. In fact, over the last three years, professional landscaping companies were cited about every five days. And the number of citations is slowly creeping up. In 2010, there were 75 citations, up from 68 in 2009, and 61 in 2008, according to the Laguna Beach Police Department.
The first ticket is $100, the second is $200, and the third is $500. After that, the offender is forced to listen to leaf blowers continuously for six months — something like that.
"The landscaping companies dislike the ordinance," said Jim Beres, civilian supervisor for the Police Department.
Beres said when the law came out the city littered the place — so to speak — with fliers in English and Spanish. Plus, the city has issued follow-up notices several times over the years.
So why the weekly whine and howl?
Because it's cheaper.
According to the California Landscape Contractors Assn. (CLCA), there is nothing like an early-morning turbo blast to move leaves around.
"Leaf blowers save enormous amounts of time," the group said in a position paper. "Most landscape industry estimates suggest that it takes at least five times as long to clean a typical landscape site with a broom and rake than it does with a power leaf blower."
If it's so efficient, why do leaf blowers seem to run incessantly?
We don't know.
One of the biggest concerns about gas blowers is the hydrocarbons. It's no secret the little buggers belch like an old diesel.
The Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency issued a 60-page report on leaf blowers in 2000 that became either the justification for banning leaf blowers in many cities or the reinforcement of laws already on the books.
"We calculate that hydrocarbon emissions from one half hour of leaf blower operation equal about 2,200 miles of driving, at 30 miles per hour average speed," the report said.
The Orange County Grand Jury said it another way in its leaf blower report about the same time.
"Exhaust pollution per leaf blower per hour is the equivalent of the amount of smog from 17 cars driven one hour and is localized in the area of blower usage," the grand jury said.
So when your neighbor's landscaper fires up that blower, imagine sucking on the tailpipes of 17 cars.
Is it really this bad?
Well, the professional landscaper groups say that those reports are outdated and blowers have gotten more efficient, like little Priuses. New standards allegedly have reduced emissions by about 75%.
Besides, the CLCA said, "Actual emissions from leaf blowers are few because of the equipment's intermittent use."
And if you're thinking electric blowers are better, even the landscaping groups admit the "electric" feature makes them dangerous.
Setting aside for a minute the hydrocarbons, the noise and the against-the-law part, there is an interesting Libertarian question here: Where do we stop?
Fundamentally, what's the difference between leaf blowers and lawn mowers?
Or gas-soaked, fake-briquette barbecues combined with loud, obnoxious parties?
Pollution is pollution.
As a community, we get motivated every so often to rally the troops and draw a line in the sand.
In this case, we arbitrarily decided to make leaf blowers evil.
Which is a good thing.
But now leave me in peace and quiet so I can have my barbecue and smoke out my neighbor.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.