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You Hate Leaf Blowers, Your Neighbor Uses Them: How One Town Seeks Middle Ground

(GBaile/Wikimedia Commons)

(CBaile/Wikimedia Commons)

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

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.” Continue reading