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LAH council throttles proposed leaf-blower ban

One could almost feel sorry for the electric leaf blower – or at least the worker wielding it.

Los Altos Hills City Council members watched as the man in the video shuffled along the road, half-heartedly propelling puffs of debris. A second worker with a gas-powered blower suddenly enters the frame, and the machine’s deep hum absorbs the electric version’s high-pitched whine. The second man is purposeful in his movements, and he deftly shepherds a mini cyclone of leaves and dirt – everything the electric version missed – past the competition.

The comparison was comical, and council members laughed while watching the city staff-produced clip at their Jan. 18 meeting.

“Do we still have the receipt for the electric one?” joked Councilman Roger Spreen.

The town, in fact, will keep the electric leaf blower for odd jobs, and the council will not adopt an ordinance banning its gas counterpart, council members ultimately decided.

“Do we have a better alternative to replace the noisy, air pollution (causing) gas leaf blower? ... I think there is no better alternative yet, in short,” Councilwoman Michelle Wu said.

Wu had championed resident Dave Fribush’s proposal to ban the use of gas leaf blowers in town. Fed up with the constant drone that routinely interrupts him as he works from home, Fribush posted a poll on Nextdoor.com in October: Would Los Altos Hills residents support a gas leaf-blower ban like the one Los Altos adopted in 1991? Of the 79 people who responded, 40 indicated they would. In comments, those in favor expressed grievances about noise pollution and concerns about air pollution.

No gas-powered leaf blower meets Los Altos Hills’ 50-decibel exterior noise level standard – in fact, two-stroke machines emit noise an estimated 100,000 times louder – and the California Air Resources Board classifies the machines’ hydrocarbon emissions as “significant.” Both gas and electric blowers stir up particulate matter (including harmful chemicals, spores and fecal matter) the American Heart Association links to cardiovascular disease and the American Lung Association links to lung cancer.

“It makes no sense, not only from the pollution point of view but from the noise point of view, to have this continue to go on over a long period of time,” Mayor John Radford said at the council meeting.

But enforcing a ban just isn’t feasible, council members agreed. City staff members are already overtaxed with responsibilities and, anyway, how could they insist residents forgo the power and convenience of gas leaf blowers when city maintenance workers use them? Public Works Director Allen Chen said workers clear debris from streets in preparation for winter storms, and as evidenced in the video demonstration, gas blowers complete the job much faster.

“This is really a concern for me, for the town, for the safety of the maintenance people, when they are exposed on the street,” Chen said.

Reached by phone last week, Fribush said he is disappointed in the council’s decision, but he accepts the challenge of educating residents about the negative impacts of gas blowers. He plans to write an article for the town newsletter suggesting that homeowners consider what they’re really accomplishing ferrying leaves from one temporary location to another. He wants them to think about the effects on the environment – and to consider the sanity of their neighbors.

“Someone on Nextdoor said, ‘I want to hear the birds sing again,’” Fribush said. “So I hope we can hear more birds and less leaf blowers.”

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