By Stephanie Martin
The grating growl of gas-powered leaf blowers remains in the city of Sonoma — at least for now. the City Council was expected to ban the use of the machines this past Monday night, but Mayor Ken Brown changed sides and cast the deciding vote against the measure.
Leaf blower regulations vary widely throughout California, from restricted hours of operation to outright bans.
But Sonoma’s a little different from most of the highly regulated, metropolitan places that have shut down gas-powered blowers. It’s a small-town surrounded by vineyards and ranches that’s self-conscious about its semi-bucolic identity. But that identity means different things to different residents, so the debate’s likely to continue.
Darryl Ponicsan is a writer. Every day, when his neighbors head to their jobs, he’s still at home, working on his novels — or trying to, at least. He says the leaf blowers are often so loud, and are running for so long, that he can’t write let alone talk on the telephone.
“It’s this incessant revving up of an engine, a two-stroke engine, with just an obnoxious sound,” Ponicsan said, “a uniquely annoying sound.”
Like a lot of cities, Sonoma has tried to quiet residents’ complaints with various leaf blower restrictions. Blowers currently are banned on Sundays and city holidays. And the city capped their noise level to 70 decibels two years ago in response to residents’ concerns.
But Ponicsan says he, for one, won’t settle for less than a year-round ban on the blowers, which he says contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and kick up a fair share of dust.
He’s definitely gotten the City Council’s attention. But he’s annoyed many local landscapers and gardeners — as well as Vice Mayor Tom Rouse.
Rouse says this largely agricultural community risks losing its character if it keeps agreeing to more regulations.
Around the state, Carmel and Beverly Hills were the first to ban gas leaf blowers back in the mid-’70s, and since that time, around 20 California municipalities have followed, including Los Angeles, and the Bay Area cities of Palo Alto, Berkeley and Belvedere.
Rouse says he doesn’t like the sound or the dust either, but he says he’s more worried about what happens next.
“There’ll be other people that don’t like lawn mowers, there’ll be people that don’t like chain saws, there’ll be people who don’t like the diesel trucks that come into town to pick up the grapes and drop off the grapes,” Rouse said. “Where does it stop?
Jerry Bruno is a self-employed landscaper, who relies on his leaf blower to clean local lawns and parking lots. It’s powered by a 25-pound gas pack he wears on his back.
He waves the nozzle at the ground to gently lift dry leaves off the rocks and grass, and with a few more sweeps of the arm, corral them into small piles.
He says he can’t do this with a rake. Not at the age of 64.
“I’ve got a bad back,” Bruno said. “A lot of gardeners my age are still hanging in here, we need to.”
“Without this,” Bruno added, pointing to his leaf blower, “raking and doing all the extra work? Some gardeners are in their 70s they can’t even stand up straight, but they need to keep working.”
Bruno says he may buy an electric blower if he has to, but he thinks the city should pay.
Sonoma officials estimate replacing the city’s own gas blowers with electric would cost about $10,000.
Meanwhile, some diehards in this debate say the rake is the only answer.
“I think until they ban the leaf blower completely, we’re not going to have any peace and quiet,” says Sonoma resident Regina Baker.
Baker says it’s not just the noise pollution that bothers her.
It’s also that the blowers blast whatever is on the grass or asphalt into the air. That includes mold, pollen and dried pet waste.
Baker thinks it may be time to rethink the definition of clean, leaving some of the dirt and leaves where nature put them — on the ground.