Advisory Committee: return of the leafblowers

On Thursday, October 8, the Advisory Committee got off to an uncertain start at 7:30 pm in the first-floor south meeting room at Town Hall. With Sean Lynn-Jones away, Carla Benka, the vice chair, led a session that focused mainly on leafblowers.

Beginning in 2000 with a petition article from Jerome Sadow, unsuccessful on first try, this is the fourth visit by leafblowers to town meeting. Article 10 for the fall town meeting, starting November 17, calls for a total ban on the machines–however powered and however used. Article 11 calls, on the other hand, for extensions to seasons of allowed use. Noise remains the most common complaint.

Sound and noise levels: Ordinary conversations typically involve sound levels around 60 decibels A-weighted (dBA), at a distance of 3 ft. Perceived loudness doubles with each 6 dBA increase. Federal noise exposure limits, intended to prevent hearing damage, have long been 85 dBA for an 8-hour workday. At that intensity, conversation is almost impossible. The noise would sound around 20 times louder than ordinary conversation.

Introduced in the 1970s, small leafblowers have long been loathed because of noise, although performance has gradually become more tolerable. Some of the earliest machines emitted literally earsplitting noise: as loud as 95 dBA, measured at a distance of 50 ft. Unprotected operators, who work much closer to machines, experienced up to 115 dBA, comparable to peak noise from a 737 jet on takeoff, measured about 200 ft from a runway.

Demographic shifts: As Brookline’s populations changed, more people tended to be working longer hours. They tended to have less free time and more surplus income. Rather than do their own lawn care and gardening, they turned increasingly to landscapers, who brought increasing amounts of power equipment, including leafblowers.

By the middle 1990s, Brookline had a noise bylaw limiting lawn and garden equipment to a maximum noise level of 80 dBA at a distance of 50 ft. Many leafblowers then in use were noisier than permitted, but there was little enforcement. In 2000, that situation prompted Mr. Sadow to propose limiting leafblower noise to 72 dBA. However, only a few leafblowers then available could meet such a standard.

Leafblower limits: After a long review by a moderator’s committee, the fall town meeting of 2001 voted to limit leafblower noise to 72 dBA for units manufactured in 2002 or later and to limit hours of operation: 8 am to 6 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 6 pm on weekends. The Police Department got more sound level meters, and enforcement became somewhat more attentive.

The slow phase-out of older, noisier leafblowers and the continued increases in use left many residents unsatisfied. At the fall town meeting of 2008, a package of revisions to Brookline’s noise control bylaw, introduced by the Board of Selectmen, lowered the maximum allowed noise level for leafblowers manufactured in 2009 and later to 67 dBA, measured at 50 ft. However, hours of permitted use were extended: 7 am to 7 pm weekdays and 8:30 am to 6 pm weekends and holidays. Those standards remain in effect today.

After seeking stronger measures from the 2008 fall town meeting and leaving empty-handed, Andrew Fischer, a Precinct 13 town meeting member, returned at the 2011 fall town meeting proposing restrictions specific to leafblowers in a new bylaw. It set seasons of allowed use: between March 15 and May 15 and between September 15 and December 15, allowing emergency uses out-of-season by town workers. It also set penalties: from a warning on a first offense to a $200 fine on a third or later offense.

For his efforts, Mr. Fischer was rewarded by opposition from all members of the Board of Selectmen and from all but one member of the Advisory Committee. They tried to shoo him away with a resolution, merely asking residents and contractors to be “considerate…sensitive…[and] reasonable.” Mr. Fischer argued that lapses from those fine sentiments had been at the heart of continuing problems with leafblowers. He won the day.

Another round of review: This fall, Richard Nangle, a Precinct 15 town meeting member, with other petitioners, is seeking a total ban on leafblower use in Brookline, under Article 10. At Advisory, Mr. Nangle argued that enforcement of Mr. Fisher’s leafblower law has not worked. Leafblowers continue in use out-of-season, landscapers sometimes claim they are “exempt” from laws and police are rarely able to catch violators. Only ten percent of complaints logged over three years resulted in citations.

Local landscapers led by Faith Michaels and Peter Gately, who are behind Article 11 seeking to extend the leafblower seasons, spent most of their efforts opposing Article 10. They claimed leafblowers have been key elements in making money as landscapers. Erin Gallentine, the director of Parks and Open Space, was equally emphatic, citing time and motion studies. Under Article 11, landscapers want to end the spring season on June 15, not May 15, and want to end the fall season on December 31, not December 15.

Leafblowers, they all said, do a better and more efficient job than rakes and brooms. However, Ms. Michaels and Ms. Gallentine were unable to explain why total clearance of leaves should be critical today, when 40 years ago and earlier–before leafblowers came to Brookline–it wasn’t. Somehow, previous generations had managed to live safely and happily despite some stray leaves.

After 20 minutes into a stem-winding report from the subcommittee on public safety, Janice Kahn, the chair, disclosed that it had no position on Article 10, seeking a ban–despite two sessions of public hearings. Charles “Chuck” Swartz, a Precinct 9 town meeting member, sought to send Article 10 to a committee, when it had already arrived at a committee: the Advisory Committee.

Subcommittee member David-Marc Goldstein described regulations in Cambridge and Arlington. Unlike Brookline, those communities limit numbers of leafblowers in simultaneous use, according to sizes of lots. It did not seem to occur to subcommittee members that anything between the status quo and a total ban might come within the scope of Article 10, and they did not propose such limits for Brookline.

Alan Balsam, the health director, undercut one argument against leafblowers: debris they blow into the air along with leaves. Dr. Balsam said the Advisory Council on Public Health had “found no compelling health threat.” Ms. Michaels dealt with another concern, worker exposure to noise. Units her company and others said they now use, rated for 65 dBA noise at 50 feet, expose workers to 83 dBA, below the federal limit for 8-hour industrial exposure.

Recommendations: Slogging through a total of six motions from Advisory Committee members, Ms. Benka organized recommendations. The committee opposed a leafblower ban under Article 10. That got only three votes. Under Article 11, the committee supported a minor change authorizing the public works commissioner to allow leafblower use in emergencies, but it opposed extending regular leafblower seasons.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, October 11, 2015


Warrant for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Article explanations for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Records of town meetings since 2000, Town of Brookline, MA, 2015

Leaf blower information, Town of Brookline, MA, 2012

Leaf blower study group, Town of Lincoln, MA, 2015

Leaf blowing, Department of Public Works, City of Cambridge, MA, 2014

Craig Bolon, Recycling: from wartime campaigns to secular religions, Brookline Beacon, October 6, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>