BY GRACE WILLIAMS
for Montclair Local
When Peter Holm moved from Brooklyn to Montclair a little over two years ago, he appreciated it for its stately but quaint and rustic, leafy vibe. Like many transplants, he also favored it for its proximity to the city and the commuting options. When it was time to choose a home, Holm said he wanted more space, somewhere to grow a garden and enjoy the outdoors.
“Montclair is known for being the best of a lot of different worlds,” he said. “It’s cosmopolitan, and you can get around it walking and biking.”
Like the rest of us, what Holm didn’t know was that the world would be a radically different place in 2020. Because of the pandemic, most everyone would end up spending significantly more time at home.
And now “home” performs double and triple duties for many residents, as a school and a workplace as well as a shelter.
This spring, as Holm settled into a routine at home, he became increasingly aware of the constant parade of gas-powered leaf blowers buzzing outside his window. He noted their presence throughout the day and all week long.
Town leaders, responding to the barrage of resident complaints at Zoom council meetings about leaf blowers disrupting their telework and home schooling, passed an ordinance in May “urging” residents and landscapers not to use leaf blowers while the stay-at-home order is still in place.
Montclair officials said at the time that an outright ban of leaf blowers during the pandemic would be illegal under the governor’s executive order, which allows landscapers to continue their businesses.
By September, feeling more than slightly disturbed by the cacophonous symphony at all hours of the day, Holm, who works as a university administrator, added crusader to his resume. Through the group Quiet Montclair, he hopes to raise awareness about the potentially harmful effects of gas-powered leaf blowers and to champion the use of alternatives, such as electric leaf blowers, to get the job done.
When the group launched at the end of September, its website and Facebook page outlined the mission:
“Quiet Montclair is a group of everyday residents frustrated by the noise and pollution created in our neighborhoods by gas leaf blowers. We seek strong action by the township to reduce community health risks and improve quality of life for all residents.”
Less cited but equally important in this quality-of-life quest is to spread the word about the health impacts of noise pollution. In 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that the short-term risks of being exposed to chronic noise included lack of sleep and decreased ability to focus. In practical terms, Holm said, noise pollution complaints he has fielded through Quiet Montclair relate to the pandemic, such as an inability to teach a class or for students to learn.
In addition to the noise and dust, Holm cited a report by the California Air Resources Board that found operating a commercial leaf blower for an hour emitted as much smog-forming pollution as driving 1,100 miles in a 2017 Toyota Camry.
Community leadership has long known that the town’s battle with the leaf blower was one that needed addressing, and, on paper, the rules appear fairly clear-cut and specific. For instance, laws on the books specify that leaf blowers can only be used from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays unless the owner is operating the machine, in which case curfew bumps to 8 p.m. Weekends are a mixed bag of times and specifications, and within the calendar year, leaf blowers are allowed to operate from March 1 through June 30 and from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15. Although Montclair has a long-standing ban on the use of gas leaf blowers for much of the year, the law is rarely enforced.
“As a landscaper, I can certainly understand that some guys don’t have common courtesy,” said Joseph Mulroe, a landscaper who has serviced the area for 35 years. “Nobody likes five leaf blowers going at eight in the morning.”
Mulroe said the use of leaf blowers has made yard work simpler.
If a landscaper breaks the rules, which is often a huge complaint on social media feeds, ideally, in a well-oiled machine environment of enforcement, this means the violator would end up with a ticket.
But it’s not that simple, according to Mulroe, who points to a “cat-and-mouse”-like game that ensues, where landscapers park in front of one work site and, when they are done, rather than load up and move to the next site, they simply move the equipment and leave their trucks behind. This makes it harder for code enforcement personnel to track them. “They have to know who to send [the complaint] to,” Mulroe said.
At a recent meeting of the Montclair Environmental Council, resident Bill Marters presented the mission of Quiet Montclair, and spoke about the code enforcement issues.
“There is continuing discussion about how to enforce the current restrictions, which everyone knows are very rarely enforced,” Marters said. “The town code enforcement office isn’t really equipped to deal with this along with all their other responsibilities.”
The question about sustainable alternatives to the backpack leaf blower also comes down to time and money. Holm believes that if more landscapers knew that the technology for electric leaf blowers has come a long way, they might be interested in taking a closer look.
Another point in Quiet Montclair’s mission is to teach the public about the ecosystems in their back and front yards. “[Leaf litter] and grass clippings are better for the lawn,” Holm said. “If you left it there, it would be nourishing for your plants and the ecosystem.”