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About five years ago, Jamie Banks noticed that the whine of gas-powered leaf blowers around her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, had grown from an occasional burst of nearby noise to a frequent, high-decibel din that could last for hours, several days a week.
She would wake up to the engine roar, she says, step outside and observe landscape workers wielding four or five blowers, raising a 30-foot-high miasma of dust that commuters would skirt as they walked to the nearby train station in the town center.
"At my home it had become a 360-degrees surround-sound situation," she said. "It was ubiquitous." And it was all year round, Banks added, the machines used not just for leaves but to clear parking lots and driveways, gutters and planting beds. Even to blast snow off roofs.
A health care researcher with a Ph.D, Banks began looking into the health effects of the fine dust, exhaust pollution and noise caused by leaf blowers, and found causes for concern — including a clear recommendation against using gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn equipment from the American Lung Association.
In 2012, Banks teamed up with Robin Wilkerson, a Lincoln garden designer who worried not just about the noise and dust and carbon footprint of leaf blowers, but also about their impact on the land.
"People were scouring their land of valuable organic matter," Willkerson said, and then often replacing it with dyed mulch from Louisiana. "It just seemed like lunacy."
Something needed to be done, they both decided.
At this point in the story, which has played out in many towns and cities around the country, a big fight ensues. Residents who hate the blowers try to get the machines banned. Landscapers, landlords and homeowners who use the blowers fight back. The neighbor-vs.-neighbor battles often grow heated, as they have recently in the big Boston suburbs of Newton and Brookline.
And often, the attempts to regulate lose. Some California towns banned leaf blowers back when they were new in the 1990s, but blower use has been growing enormously, and relatively few towns have blocked them or successfully enforced limits.
In New England, where leaf-peeping season is now routinely followed by leaf-blowing season, no town has passed an outright ban, though a few have imposed restrictions.
First-world problems, you might say. And you might be correct. Lincoln, a gorgeous New England hamlet of old stone walls along winding, wooded lanes, is one of the richest towns in the U.S., with median annual household incomes topping $100,000. The leaf blower issue naturally tends to arise in affluent suburbs where people can afford landscapers and increasingly seek a manicured look.
But it can surface just about anywhere there are trees and blowers, and it doesn't seem trivial if it's happening where you live or (try to) work.
No less a literary personage than James Fallows of The Atlantic, who has become very vocally active against leaf blowers, argues that the issue speaks to big concepts about collective versus private life. A trenchant New Yorker article on the mother of all leaf blower regulation fights in California found that it became "a referendum on what it means to be a neighbor."
As Banks and Wilkerson learned more about the battles over bans around the country, they decided to pursue a more positive path in Lincoln.
They started in 2012 by forming a citizen group, Quiet Lincoln, to spread word about the issue. The next year, in 2013, they asked their fellow citizens at Lincoln's Town Meeting to approve a study panel. And thus, the Lincoln Leaf Blower Study Committee was formed.
No landscaping companies joined, but the panel did include members from the Department of Public Works, which uses blowers, and the Rural Land Foundation — which owns a small collection of stores and offices in the town known as the "mall," and employs landscapers to maintain it — along with residents.
The committee surveyed the town to get a sense of people's feeling about leaf blowers, and found that 46 percent of respondents were bothered by the noise and 37 percent by the dust and air pollution.
"We recognized the importance of education if we were to get town support around this issue," Banks said. "This is a problem that affects some individuals and not others, so it's very hard to get broad-based support."
The panel researched the health and environmental effects of blowers. It held educational events to demonstrate more advanced blower technologies, including new battery-powered units. It created a website and looked into alternatives, from sweepers to sustainable landscaping practices like leaf mulching and raking leaves under shrubs.
In February of last year, the committee presented its report on leaf blowers and their health effects to the town Board of Health. In March, the the three-member health board stated:
“Exposure to high-intensity, episodic or long duration noise and air particulate and vapor dispersion from leaf blowers represents significant potential health hazards to our citizens. The Board of Health supports the Town of Lincoln Leaf Blower Study Group’s efforts to craft effective and economically sound approaches to mitigate those health risks.”
A few months later, the Board of Health issued an advisory that distinguished between the dense leaf-blower activity in the center of town and more far-flung areas. Board member Dr. Steven Kanner sums it up in an email:
"Essentially, we think there is a potential problem from noise and particulates in the center of Lincoln only, and are trying to encourage a negotiated practical solution involving the landscape companies and their clients, as well as the aggrieved residents, to mitigate the problem."
Regulations would surely have to be very complex, and likely contentious, Kanner said, while solutions based purely on voluntary cooperation "have not yet fully materialized. So the story in Lincoln has not come to a close."
True, the story is still unfolding. And the leaf blower committee did consider seeking a seasonal ban at this year's Town Meeting, though it decided to hold off.
One By One
But let's end for now on a hopeful note for advocates of leaf-blower limits: That lot you see amid the miasma in the video above? It's part of the property that has moved most rapidly to improve its leaf blower practices, Banks said, under the leadership of Geoff McGean, a member of the leaf blower committee and executive director of the Rural Land Foundation.
The clean-ups there used to consist of weekly mowing and the use of two to four leaf blowers, McGean said. They would be "doing what leaf blowers do, which is to blow things around even in the non-leaf months."
Members of the leaf blower committee approached the foundation, he said, and the case they made included video footage of the dust clouds. "You could see not only the noise impact but the environmental and health impacts," he said. "It was very visible."
His board decided to ask their landscaper last year to try cutting back on leaf blower use, to experiment with using blowers only during the big spring and fall clean-ups, and not to use them for landscaping on hard surfaces or planted areas. It took some adjustment, he said, but so far, so good.
"We have not noticed any deterioration in the appearance of the property," McGean said, and the landscaper is not charging more.
Now, the Rural Land Foundation — a conservation organization — is not exactly your typical landlord. But, McGean said, "Hopefully, one by one, other small businesses in this very small commercial area can start to follow some of the things we're doing, and see that there's very little impact on the landscape, and overall the benefit is great."
Lincoln's approach to leaf blowers is drawing some praise even from Larry Will, a former vice president of engineering for a major manufacturer of leaf blowers, who often wades in to local battles over bans to offer the industry's point of view.
He said he finds the Lincoln panel's website too negative, but in general, "I applaud what they're doing. It's not what I would do, but it's still a very good idea," he said. "To find some other way that appeases — you can say both sides of the issue, or everyone. You want to keep your neighbors neighborly."
Will often challenges opponents' information about blowers, saying much of it is out of date. But on one point he's very much in accord with the Lincoln leaf blower committee: Leaf blower bans are the wrong tactic.
"The landscaper today cannot do his job efficiently — or properly, really — if he doesn't have the use of a leaf blower," he said. "So banning is the very worst thing you can do. And I say it's even bad when you have a partial ban, like three months in the summer. Of course, the landscape contractor will ignore the ban, and he'll take a chance on getting fined, because overall it's cheaper for him to use a blower than a rake and a broom."
These days, as the efforts in Lincoln continue, Jamie Banks is taking leaf blower education efforts like Lincoln's national. She's the executive director of Quiet Communities, a national nonprofit that provides research, consulting and programs for landscapers and communities. It's "focused on effective solutions," she said.
The Lincoln committee is about to send out a town-wide mailing to share key information about the blowers. Along with explanations of the health and environmental risks, it offers Lincoln residents these action points:
And meanwhile, garden designer Robin Wilkerson has demonstrated the power of information — and asking nicely — in her own neighborhood. She put information about leaf blowers, along with personal notes, in the mailboxes of all her close neighbors, and it has wrought a major change: All but one have stopped using the blowers, or allowing their landscapers to use them, on their property, she said.
“Partly, we have a really wonderful, close neighborhood,” she said. And partly, people who weren’t home during the day realized that some of their neighbors were home, and “it’s just rude.”
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