Ban on Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers | Council Decision Put on Hold Until August

City staff will address key issues raised by the South Pasadena City Council for consideration of approval when the item returns in August. Staff is being asked to come back with a more fully developed ordinance

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | City Council meets at City Hall for the first time in over a year

An effort to go all green was given a red light – at least for now – as the South Pasadena City Council has opted not to prohibit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in town until a series of questions are fully answered.

Following a lengthy public hearing in which councilmembers were asked to amend two sections of a city ordinance, city staff was directed to return in August, following a 4-1 vote, with a more comprehensive effort than what came before the council last Wednesday night. Mayor Pro Tem Michael Cacciotti, a longtime proponent of the ban, cast the lone dissenting vote, pushing for a shorter timeline as the council looks to make a final decision.

“I think we should make the attempt to come back in two weeks,” said Cacciotti, “otherwise we keep pushing it off and pushing it off. It’s not fair to the gardeners or all of us who are inhaling this stuff every single week.”

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Among the concerns raised by the council were penalty enforcement on those using gas-powered devices, putting toxins in the air, after the ordinance goes into effect, along with who assumes the responsibility for the infraction – the tenant, property owner or equipment user. All councilmembers seemed to agree a ban was necessary but the roadmap to get there was unclear.

“I strongly support an ordinance,” said South Pasadena Mayor Diana Mahmud. “I don’t support this ordinance as written for a number of reasons.”

She believes its “extremely problematic” to include a tenant in the role of responsibility particularly where multi-family dwellings are involved. “How on earth do you assess one tenant versus another unless you limit the applicability to a tenant that is actually using the equipment,” she said. “The tenant, I would assume in most instances, has no responsibility, no knowledge. I just think it’s extremely problematic to enforce against a tenant.”

The mayor also stressed that a city staff report on the issue provided no information on how other cities are addressing the issue. “I went online and I was able to quickly learn we’re much further behind, I’m embarrassed to say, than I thought we were in adopting this ordinance,” she said.

Mahmud also pointed out there is no information in the staff report as to who will be responsible for the enforcement of the ordinance, insisting that policy direction is needed.

In addition, she questioned the duration of 15 months, starting October 1, 2022, before the ordinance goes into effect, noting a six-month provision is lengthy enough. “I’m concerned that our communication efforts will be diluted by having such an extended timeline for enforcement,” she said.

Opponents of the gas-powered devices say their emissions are a significant source of noise and air pollution, providing severe health impacts on those using them, including commercial gardeners and landscapers.

“I have a concern keeping our noise ordinance as it is presently written,” said the mayor. “It is almost unintelligible. And it needs to be understood in plain English.”

After reading a convoluted section of the current ordinance out loud to those on the council, Mahmud said, “Other than a sound engineer I really don’t know who would understand that.”

She favors a clearer, plain English, common sense approach like one adopted by the City of Pasadena to eliminate the gas blowers. “They simply make it illegal to operate any piece of lawn equipment that exceeds 65 decibels when measured 50 feet away from the equipment,” she said of South Pasadena’s neighboring city. “That’s English, that’s something I think we can easily enforce, otherwise I’m afraid by invoking the existing ordinance we are frustrating half the ordinance, which is intended to address noise pollution.”

Instead of continuing to change it, Councilmember Jack Donovan suggested, “Just eliminate leaf blowers from that ordinance” and simply write: “Gas-powered leaf blowers are not allowed for use within the City of South Pasadena.”

According to the staff report, more than 200 cities in the country have enacted restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers, among them Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Claremont, and Santa Monica.

City staff presented the draft ordinance to the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission (NREC) at its regularly scheduled meeting in May. The NREC proposed an amendment, as described in the city report, to the draft language in the ordinance, emphasizing that property owners or tenants would be responsible for violations, as opposed to landscapers and gardeners, included in the original draft. In a unanimous vote, the NREC approved the amendment, recommending that the council adopt the proposed ordinance.

In Sacramento, there’s a move at the state Legislature through AB 1346 to ban all sales of new gas-powered leaf-blowers, lawnmowers, and other small off-road engines. It would go into effect by 2024 or earlier, perhaps, if the California Air Resources Board has some say in the matter.

Cacciotti said prior to Wednesday’s council meeting the effects of gas-powered leaf blowers and other lawn equipment has placed an enormous strain on the U.S. healthcare system, costing citizens billions of dollars a year, as emissions cause lung and cardiovascular disease, hearing loss “and, from recent studies, we know it impacts the brain and the nervous system,” he said. “It also has a dramatic impact on the environment and climate change. There are multiple benefits through a ban of this type that potentially could save the country billions of dollars.”

Following its passage, Cacciotti looks forward to working with city staff, involving the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), on outreach efforts, including education, and resources for independent gardeners, business owners, and homeowners to help transition to electric lawn equipment.

In 2016, the City of South Pasadena became the first AGZA certified Green Zone city in the nation to maintain all of its parks, golf course, and municipal properties to be maintained using zero emission equipment. Over the past year, Cacciotti, who also serves as a governing board member for the AQMD, has visited other Southern California cities, joining AGZA Founder Dan Mabe, in pushing the all-electric practice for city grounds.

Cacciotti has urged city staff to look at ways to reduce costs for electric lawn and garden equipment, including 75 percent reduction off electric models through a program offered by AQMD.

William Kelly, a member of NREC and former employee of the AQMD and as a writer who has covered an array of environmental topics throughout his career, spoke during comment of the council meeting and issued a statement to the South Pasadenan, indicating why he believes ordinance is needed, in part reading:

Today gas-powered gardening equipment used across Southern California emits more volatile organic compounds each day (31.2 tons) than all passenger cars on the road (24.4 tons), according to recent South Coast Air Quality Management District data,” he wrote. “Volatile organic compounds consist of a variety of compounds, including cancer-causing benzene, xylene, and toluene, as well as formaldehyde and other chemical compounds. The compounds also react in the air with nitrogen oxides emitted by burning fossil fuel and create lung-burning ozone, levels of which are recently seeing an uptick after years of decline in the air basin.”

Kelly explained that moving away from gas-powered to electric blowers and other gardening equipment is a measure in the city’s adopted Climate Action Plan. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates nationwide that lawn and garden equipment emits about 23 million tons a year of greenhouse gases,” he continued. “In the South Coast Air Basin, which includes San Gabriel Valley, carbon dioxide emissions from the equipment total more than 270,000 tons annually, according to the SCAQMD.”

Leaf blower emissions, added Kelly, are exhausted around the operator, who must strap the device to the back in order to use. “While this is generally not mentioned, it is clear that the exhaust is most concentrated near the operator.  Gardeners also inhale plenty of dust blown into the air by the blowers, which includes pollen, soil, brake lining material, tire rubber, etc. These particles cause respiratory irritation and can trigger asthma.

In terms of enforcement, Kelly said it wasn’t the NREC’s intent to make it a criminal matter in terms of citations being issued, noting that it would be conducted through inspectors, not armed officers, handled through a civil penalty.

“The enforcement issue can be worked out,” he told the council, “and addressed down the road. I think if there is so much concern in the community, there could be a group of people who could participate on that in something that would be workable.”

Other speakers expressed concern about noise levels of leaf blowers, the call for civilian enforcement, leaving gardeners out of it, and the importance of dealing with the latter before the ordinance is enacted. Thirty-one comments on the item were issued in writing.

Councilmember Evelyn Zneimer insisted that the enforcement segment be incorporated in the ordinance, making it clear what the penalties will be for using gas-powered leaf-blowers. Joining her was Councilmember Jon Primuth talking about “uneven enforcement, the possibility for complaint driven enforcement to create problems between neighbors,” he said. “I would also like this to make this an entirely civil matter, not any kind of potential for criminal [action].”

He suggested sending it back to the NREC to address the enforcement piece and other model ordinances to see how it’s done in other cities. “I think we need to get this right,” Primuth said. “We have enough lead time. October 2022 is the enforcement date so I don’t think there’s a rush to do this.”

A more fully developed ordinance is called for, said Mahmud, saying the enforcement of the ban requires further study. She agreed with Primuth in wanting to know how other communities are handing the ban or addressing it, urging city staff to come up with a matrix outlining the issues discussed. “We can benefit from other jurisdictions,” she said, noting the city’s current plan is “not ready to be adopted.”

Recognizing concerns about enforcement, Cacciotti urged the council to take advantage of the AQMD’s incentive program, which offers significant discounts on electric lawn and gardening equipment, noting the funds for it “are going away quick,” he said, citing a number of cities that have engaged in the effort. “When the money dries up it may not be available.”

The mayor pro tem said South Pasadena residents have been demanding a gas-powered leaf blower ban for over a year. “I have never seen so much overwhelming support,” he told his colleagues. “Of those 31 written comments you saw, I read every word from every one. Twenty-nine of the 31 said ‘do it fast, do it now, we’re tired of it.’”

He added that “an incredibly robust outreach program” was already in the works to educate gardeners, local businesses and the public on the efforts to clear the air with use of electric leaf-blowers.

“It’s like my electric car, you’re going to pay a little bit more up front with your capital costs but over time you’re going to save thousands of dollars. This needs immediate action. Let’s take some time, let’s refine it, but let’s not send it back to NREC. I don’t want to wait another year. We need action now to protect our gardeners, to protect ourselves. It’s about people taking responsibility…and doing something now. It’s time for a change. We’re tired of it in our neighborhoods, in our yards, at our schools, at our businesses. I’ll go along with moving it off, but I would like to bring it back next month. People want us to move quick, but effectively and judiciously so I think we can do it.”

With a major shift in green technology, Primuth said he’d be surprised if the AQMD subsidy was the only one of its kind or exchange program available today. “As this technology changeover occurs I could see more programs being enacted in the industry,” he noted. “I understand ‘act now, supplies are limited.’ I understand that as a concept. But I also seem to think there’s another program coming down the pike.”

Cacciotti told his fellow councilmember, “We can’t guarantee in three months the money will be left,” he said, talking about the AQMD program. “The money is just so good now, you don’t want to turn it away. If we come back with something in two weeks, the money will still be there.”