Takoma Park advocacy

On October 13, 2008, Takoma Park resident Steve Davies presented a letter to Mayor Bruce Williams asking that he "schedule a City Council worksession as soon as practicable as a first step in city action to phase out the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers in Takoma Park." The letter explained, "These devices rely on remarkably inefficient, two-cycle gas-oil engines. Their loud whine can be heard for blocks. But as annoying as their noise is, it is the machines' contribution to air pollution that leads us to conclude the city should ban them."

The letter was signed by 31 Takoma Park environmental professionals and activists —

Wendy Bell, Margaret Bowman, Franca Brilliant, Paul Chrostowski, Steve Davies, Jim Epstein, Melanie Fosnaught, Phil Friend, Susan Harris, Ann Hoffnar, Pat Howell, Bill Hutchins, Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa, Marty Ittner, Joseph Klockner, Peter Lane, Diane MacEachern, Peter Marra, Alden Meyer, Brenda Platt, Dick Rice, Scott Schang, Bruce Sidwell, Greg Smith, Eileen Sobeck, Mike Tabor, Betsy Taylor, Mike Tidwell, Dave Tilford, Monique Tilford, Chris Victoria
— and by co-organizer Seth Grimes. The letter elicted the following local coverage:

Mayor Williams agreed to schedule a work session, which has now been set for Wednesday, January 21 at 7:50 in the council chambers in Takoma Park. Here's the agenda page and the packet for the work session put together by the city.


The city of Takoma Park currently has a noise ordinance that specifically exempts leaf blowers from the 65-decibel daytime limit. Here is the relevant section:

14.12.080 Leafblowers and other power lawn tools.

A. Except as provided in this section, a person must not sell, buy, offer for sale, or use a leafblower at any time that has an average sound level exceeding 70 dBA at a distance of 50 [feet]. This requirement is in addition to any other noise level or noise disturbance standard that applies under this chapter.

B. The City may inspect, and upon request, a person must produce, any leafblower that is sold, offered for sale, or used in the City, in order to determine whether the leafblower complies with this section. A person who relies in good faith on a manufacturer's written representation of the sound level of a leafblower that has not been modified is not subject to a penalty for violating this section.

C. No person shall use a leafblower or other power lawn tool outdoors during the daytime for more than 2 hours of accumulated time during any 24-hour period on any individual lot or parcel of property and no leafblower or other power lawn tool shall be used outdoors during the nighttime. (Ord. 2002-35 1(8), 2002/Ord. 2000-22 1(8), 2000)

"Daytime" is defined as 7 a.m. - 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

The city, sometimes known as the "Berkeley of the East," differs markedly from that California municipality when it comes to leaf blowers. Whereas Berkeley passed a law in 1999 that prohibits the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, Takoma Park has no such restrictions. In fact, in contrast to the industry's own guidelines, which direct lawn care firms not to use more than one leaf blower at a time in residential areas, Takoma Park merely requires that individual blowers not exceed 70 dBA at a distance of 50 feet (meaning they can be louder than 70 dBA anywhere within the 50-foot radius). So, under the city's ordinance, there is no limit on the number of blowers that can be used at one time, even though it would seem logical to assume that two blowers make more noise than one (and three make more noise than two, and so on).

The industry also says blower operators should be at least 50 feet away from all bystanders (including other operators--see below). In densely developed and populated Takoma Park, that is well-nigh impossible most of the time.

Many people see a ban as too draconian. But given the complete lack of restriction on leaf blowers now and the difficulty of enforcing noise limits, a ban seems to be the only practical solution. The current restriction (no more than 2 hours of use over a 24-hour period) is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. And operators, more than 90 percent of whom are untrained (according to an industry expert who spoke to Steve Davies for an article in the Takoma Voice), do not avoid sidewalks when using the machines. Two and sometimes three machines are used at a time to clear parking lots and sidewalks, as well as lawns right next to sidewalks, whether pedestrians are present or not. (The source for this information is years of personal observation by GreenOurCity.org's Steve Davies).

Pedestrian health and safety, and the general health, safety and well-being of the community, would certainly benefit from a prohibition, which could be implemented as an important first step toward a more sustainable, livable community, as envisioned by the city's strategic plan. That plan notes that residents "desire more places that they can walk to or ride a bike to for shopping, recreation, and/or work."

It also says that the city should "promote sustainable environmental policies and practices to significantly reduce energy use and the environmental footprint of city services. This would include vehicle use, fuel use, facility efficiency, purchasing preference for recyclable and green products, use of alternative, less environmentally damaging products, etc., as well as a review of alternative work schedules for city employees."

Sounds like a ban on leaf blowers would fit the bill nicely.

Positive steps

There are a number of actions that the city could take (either by itself or with non-governmental partners) to ease the effects of a ban. A trade-in program that would accept gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers in return for steep discounts on electric equipment is one possibility. Others include: Getting composting bins from Montgomery County and distributing them here; offering chicken wire or other materials to residents so they can easily mulch their leaves in place; offering free or cheap rakes; encouraging neighborhood "rake brigades" (see example here) that would empower residents to care for the city parks themselves; and the broadcast of instructional shows on the city's cable TV channel that would show folks how to rake and mulch leaves without breaking their backs.

The city itself could begin using mulching mowers at the parks and reduce the frequency of mowing. The use of mulching mowers would eliminate the current need to move leaves and grass clippings with leaf blowers.

Currently, the city uses blowers to clear leaves and grass clippings at city parks. But city employees or contractors also use them to clear "dust, wood chips, leaves, and other debris from paved surfaces during specific construction projects or tree removal," according to a memo prepared by Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite for the worksession.

City practices would appear to conflict with the industry's admonition (in the OPEI pamphlet) to never use blowers to clean up "large amounts of gravel or gravel dust; construction dirt; plaster dust; cement and concrete dust; and dry garden topsoil." Instead, OPEI advises, "Use a vacuum or power broom with water."

Curiously, however, the industry group pamphlet also touts blowers as "extremely efficient for cleaning leaves, grass clippings, and debris from driveways, sidewalks, parking lots, sports arenas, parks and construction sites."

Here's OPEI's list of blower no-no's:

The city is now looking at updating its Local Action Plan for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which has essentially been gathering dust since 2000. "Takoma Park not following the carbon diet set in 2000," a headline in The Takoma Voice said in December 2007, noting the city had not lived up to the plan's 10-year goal to cut emissions in the city to 80 percent of 1990 levels.

How bad a problem are leaf blowers? It's difficult to say precisely, but the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (of which Takoma Park is a member) reported that in 2002, gas-powered lawn and garden equipment emitted 81.6 tons per day of volatile organic compounds and 12.6 tons daily of nitrogen oxides.

Those numbers put the lawn care industry in second place in the region for VOCs and fourth for NOx. VOCs and NOx react with sunlight to produce ozone.

Here are the tables with that data, taken from COG's 2007 State Implementation Plan.

Newly issued federal regulations on non-road engines (see below) do not improve upon earlier regs when it comes to handheld blowers, so it's not clear how much those numbers will change, despite COG's predicted reductions (see the tables, which have estimates for 2009).


Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), EPA

Montgomery County

More links

Sample language (seasonal ban)

Scarsdale, N.Y., city code (example of action taken)

205-2. Outdoor power tools.

[Amended 1-8-1985 by L.L. No. 1-1985; 6-26-1990 by L.L. No. 3-1990; 6-14-1994 by L.L. No. 4-1994; 1-14-2003 by L.L. No. 3-2003]

A. It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or other entity to operate any engine-driven power tool or motorized equipment after the hour of 9:00 p.m. and before the hour of 8:00 a.m. on any weekday and before 10:00 a.m. and after 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.

B. No person, firm, corporation or other entity shall use a gasoline-powered blower in the Village during the period from June 1 through September 30 of each year.

C. Promulgation of additional rules and regulations. The Village Manager is authorized to promulgate rules, regulations and standards applicable to the operation of the above power tools and equipment in an effort to control such noise and lessen the effect of that noise on the quality of life in the Village. Such rules shall not become effective until approved by the Village Board of Trustees.

D. This section shall not apply to golf course operations or utility companies performing emergency repairs, and Subsection A shall not apply to municipal or school operations. The Village Manager may waive enforcement of Subsection B in the wake of a storm or other emergency situation.