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Santa Monica residents still irked by leaf blowers, despite long standing ban

Gardener Martin Gutierres and his leaf blower.
Gardener Martin Gutierres and his leaf blower.
Jennifer Sharpe
Gardener Martin Gutierres and his leaf blower.
Gardener Martin Gutierres shows off his leaf blower's 2-stroke engine.
Jennifer Sharpe

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Santa Monica College's groundskeepers are being honored at the 2012 Eco Hero Awards for transitioning away from gas powered gardening equipment. Another green triumph for Santa Monica, mecca of hybrid SUVs and reusable bags. But to those of us who live here, we know there's still a dark side to the city's eco-friendly heart. And lately, I've been hearing it raging outside my windows more wildly than ever.

What is it? The two-stroke roar of the gas-powered leaf blower.

I live in a back house, so I'm surrounded by a dirge of leaf blowers all week long. The yards on either side of me, the front house yard ahead of me, the guys going up and down the alley behind me. You'd never know there was an ordinance against them.

"What is the purpose of a leaf blower? A lot of the gardeners blow the leaves to the next neighbor, or into the street. The wind comes up and blows it back. I don't get it," said Mrs. Whistleblower, a pseudonym for the anti-leaf-blower activist.

I understand her fustration. It's one of those things that once you start focusing in on it, it can really start to drive you crazy. Mrs. Whistleblower, as I have to call her for this story, has made this her cause, she's an anti-leaf-blower activist, much to the annoyance of the neighbors she sent this letter to.

"We neighbors on this street appreciate it if you tell your gardener not to use the leaf blower. It's against the law. I wrote the ordinance number. I didn't sign my name, I just said, 'The Neighbors on the Block.' They realized it was me and went berserk. How could I send them a note like that?" she said.

Mrs. Whistleblower is puzzled that her neighbors can't see she's just trying to do them a favor. Save them and their gardeners from the two-stroke engine's concentrated spew of carbon monoxide, volatile green house agents, and particulate matter that can hang in the air for days. Not to mention what's in the dust it kicks up. Mold spores, lead, neurotoxins, fecal matter, insect parts, etc.

Mrs. Whistleblower is serious about her cause. She patrols the streets of her neighborhood, entering leaf blower offenses into a small notepad before reporting them to the city's leaf-blower hotline. She estimates she's called
at least 80 times over the past twelve months.

Because of that, she was elated when the City of Santa Monica set up a hotline for leaf blower complaints a couple of years ago. She estimates she's called at least 80 times in the past twelve months.

Her calls go to Neil Shapiro's office on the second floor of the carousel building at the Santa Monica Pier. Shapiro, the city's sustainability analyst, sends out two warnings, before issuing a $250 citation. I wondered how the leaf blower anarchy outside my windows has been translating into city revenue.  

"I think we've issued six citations in the last... well almost -- it'll be two years in the fall," said Shapiro. "Only, six, yeah. I mean we were fully staffed when we started this, but then we lost the person who was focused on leaf blowers so we've actually had a gap of -- oh boy -- almost a year."

Shapiro says it's complicated turning over a government position, but they've finally got someone new who'll be spending half his day with an eye out for leaf blowers. Schapiro expects that within a couple of years, Santa Monica will be leaf-blower free. And with Santa Monica's strict ordinance, that means even electric leaf blowers will have to go.

"Why don't we just go back to the rake and the broom? I don't think it's unreasonable. I mean before, we had that. That was very efficient. You know, a little more human energy, to get some exercise," said Shapiro. "I don't think it's such a big deal, I don't think it's unreasonable to stop using leaf blowers when we have other alternatives."

But is this really an achievable goal? The gardener who takes care of my property, Martin Gutierres, says his business maintains ten yards a day, and although he'd love to switch to a rake and broom, when he tried, a couple of his clients fired him.

"People in Santa Monica, they don't want noise, but they don't want to pay more," said Gutierres. "Because when I start to rake and use the broom, I need to spend almost double time. And they don't want to pay, so... it's no sense to continue that."

I wondered how much of the environmental good being done by Santa Monica mascot, the Prius, is being undone by the leaf blower? According to Karen Caesar, spokesperson for California's Air Resources Board, "It's ten times the pollution of a Prius, hour for hour," she said.

Unlike cars, two-stroke engines aren't required to have catalytic converters or emission scrubbers. Caesar's agency sets the emission standards.

"If money were no object, then yeah, you could control any of these things," said Caesar. "But when you have to have a product that oftentimes only sells for a few hundred dollars, you can't just necessarily slap a catalytic converter on it and say you're going to have a cost effective product."

But she says manufacturers have been cooperative, and as a result, leaf-blower emissions have dropped significantly over the past decade. And to put things in perspective. "I don't want to say they're insignificant compared to vehicles, but, typically you're only going to use a leaf blower a half hour at a time," said Caesar.

She says portable gardening equipment only accounts for 1.7 percent of the state's overall pollution, so leaf blowers account for even less than that. But when I bring this number up with zero-emissions gardening crusader Dan Mabe, president of the Green Station LA, his nostrils flare.

"If you look at the fine particulate matter -- and these are particulates that are what they call 2.5 or smaller -- you can literally fit about 60 of these particulates inside the diameter of a hair follicle," said Mabe. "There is no mask on the market that these workers or that the general public can wear to protect themselves."

A former tennis instructor, Mabe stands on the sidelines of Santa Monica College's Eco Hero Awards holding an electric weed wacker. In his suit and wraparound sunglasses, he looks like someone out of "Men In Black."

"The Green Station is creating appliances and battery technology that is going to infiltrate the commercial sector," said Mabe. "The game-changing component is going to be developing the battery technology to really be as viable as gas powered equipment as far as performance and longevity and ruggedness.

In his quest to green-zone Southern California one pocket at a time, Mabe offers to green zone my property. This would mean enrolling me in a city pilot program that would have me tracking data on an electric lawn mower and a leaf sweeper. I tell him I don't have much lawn at my house, but if I can get one of my neighbors to share the mower, it might make sense. I send a letter to my neighbors, and ask how they feel about the city's leaf blower ordinance.

What's government doing in my life right now? They're telling people that are ill in many instances they can't use marijuana," said my neighbor John Dishman. He's the only neighbor who answered my letter. "What about gay people and lesbians who want to get married? Government is getting involved in areas where they shouldn't be involved, so, I have a real problem with this."

Though I've known this man most of my life, it wasn't until this leaf blower conversation that I got such a sense of who he is.

"Not that I don't recognize the noise and all. But I'm really firm on the people at the lower end of the economic scale that suffer because we're gonna pass rules that dictate what they can and can't do," said Diahman.

At that moment, we were interrupted by the phone, It was a call Mr. Dishman says he gets every other day. A robocall.

"This guy's selling solar stuff. This drives me nuts!" said Dishman. "Night before last, I had seventeen phone calls. Politicians looking for votes to people surveying me about how I'm gonna vote. It's just absurd. I mean, this is real noise pollution!"

I could see that Mr. Dishman was just as tormented by robocalls as I am by the leaf blowers. In our adjacent houses, we were experiencing parallel technological invasions driving us towards the same edge.

As I left Mrs. Whistleblower's house with the leaf-blower hotline information, I admitted I didn't think I had it in me to rat out my neighbors. But Mrs. Whistleblower is relentless.

"Tell me what's happening, I'll call up. Let me know when to go walking and I'll take a little pad and pencil and write it down." she said.

Fueled by one of Southern California's great untapped energy reserves. 100-percent renewable leaf-blower angst.

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