By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Residents looking to see leaf bowers intrude less often on their daily lives will have to wait a bit longer — as officials say they haven’t yet agreed on how to curb their use.
A proposed amendment to Montclair’s leaf blower law that would have reduced usage by 6 hours a week, banned them throughout March, and set fines for violations has been tabled until council members can consider it further.
The ordinance, introduced at the Jan. 5 council meeting, was met with opposition by some who said it didn’t go far enough, and others who felt it lacked a mechanism for enforcement.
The battle over leaf blower noise and the dust leaf blowers create has been long-going in Montclair. But with the onset of COVID-19 and residents working and learning from home all day, some 30 residents banned together to create Quiet Montclair.
The group expanded its educational mission from just the noise pollution the equipment creates, to health and environmental issues surrounding the machines. Last May, the council passed a resolution “urging” the halt of leaf blowers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some residents asked Montclair officials to ban leaf blowers altogether during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said it would be illegal to do so under the governor’s executive order concerning essential workers.
Current code allows the use of leaf blowers powered by internal combustion engines March 1 through June 30 and Oct. 1 through Dec. 15 only. The leaf blowers are allowed weekdays 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for landscapers and up to 8 p.m. for homeowners, Saturdays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for landscapers and up to 8 p.m. for homeowners, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. No violation fines are set in the ordinance.
Rather than implementing a ban altogether, a committee consisting of Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilman Peter Yacobellis and Councilwoman Robin Schlager sought to ease more restrictions in by changing the start times to an hour later to 9 a.m. on weekdays and to 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Instead of allowing usage March through June 30 and October to Dec. 15, leaf blowers would be banned throughout March. For the first time, the amendment would also create fines of $100 to $2,000 per a violation.
Opponents of expanding regulations have said that residents are more aware of leaf blower usage since they are now home during the day, when landscapers head to Montclair to clean up residents’ lawns.
Social worker and grief counselor Lori Harris has been working from home during the pandemic and said she can’t escape the noise of leaf blowers. But what has her more concerned is how quickly her rooms fill up with fumes that seem to linger.
Alvin H. Strelnick, M.D. a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and resident, told council members that the two-stroke engines of gas-powered leaf blowers are more than just deafening.
“They are invisibly toxic. Because they run on a mixture of gas and oil they produce toxic exhaust, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, hydrocarbons and unburned fumes that linger for days,” he said. He said the pollution leads to asthma and could lead to cancer.
Resident Joel Katz, also a professor at New Jersey City University, said the issue of gas powered leaf blower use is a human rights issue for not only residents, but the workers who use them on a daily basis as well.
“It’s a health concern for the workers, many of whom are Hispanic. We see people deafening themselves, poisoning themselves just for the benefits of people who want to have a leafless lawn,” Katz said. He suggested “more ethical solutions” such as battery-powered blowers or a good old-fashion rake.
But resident Artemis Estimee said she was against any change to the current law due to the impact it would have on minority-owned small businesses.
“We shouldn’t make it any more difficult to do business especially during these hard times,” she said.
Peter Holm of Quiet Montclair said that the issue is fourfold — involving noise, public health, social impacts and the environment. He said by giving just one more month in March to the “critters” that depend on leaf litter, such as pollinators who live in the ground and the birds that eat the insects, it would help the environment.
Holm also said there was a need for more enforcement of any regulations, contending that many landscapers currently ignore what’s already on the books.
Calling on enforcement puts residents in an awkward situation by either approaching alleged violators or calling the township to report them, resident Katherine Outlaw said.
Township Manager Timothy Stafford said code enforcers are ready to enforce the proposed law, but warned that enforcement can be difficult even when a resident reports a violation. Unless the code enforcement officer witnesses a violation, the officer can’t issue a summons, he said.
And then there’s the suit filed by the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association and nine landscape companies in 2017 against Maplewood, after they prohibited landscape companies from using gas-powered blowers during the summer months. The suit, which is still in the courts, claims the ban discriminates against businesses because it does not apply to private residents and town’s DPW crews.
Yacobellis said Montclair should wait and see how the suit turns out before taking on a full-out ban.
In the end, Councilmen Bob Russo, David Cummings and Bill Hurlock said they weren’t ready to vote for the proposed changes. Russo said the law didn’t go far enough. Hurlock questioned: If problems exist with the blowing of materials, then why not target lawn mowers, weed wackers and snow blowers as well? Cummings pointed to the fact that the law only pertains to residents and businesses, and not township employees, who can use leaf blowers all year long.
“We are asking taxpayers to do something that we are not asking our own township to do,” he said.
The council then voted to table the ordinance to allow for more discussion, with Spiller, Cummings, Russo and Hurlock approving the tabling and Councilwomen Lori Price Abrams, Schlager and Yacobellis voting no.
Price Abrams, Schlager and Yacobellis all concurred that the amendments were a good starting point.
Yacobellis said: “Yeah, I want an Aston Martin, but had to start with a Chrysler LeBaron.”