By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclairians will get 75 fewer days of leaf blower noise invading their backyards and permeating their homes if the Township Council gives final approval to an ordinance introduced earlier this month.
But not all are happy with the ordinance, which passed at first reading on Tuesday, Feb. 2. Some said they’re concerned with possible punitive measures for violations, and worry about whether landscapers can now keep up with customers’ demands.
The new measures would restrict gas leaf blower usage to two months in the spring and two months in the fall, limit hours of use, require protective gear for operators and set a minimum fine for violations.
Amendments to the current gas leaf blower law were first introduced at the Jan. 5 council meeting, but were met with opposition by some who said the new rules didn’t go far enough, and by others who felt it lacked a mechanism for enforcement.
Current code allows the use of leaf blowers powered by internal combustion engines from March 1 through June 30 and from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15, 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.
Rather than implement a ban altogether, a committee consisting of Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilman Peter Yacobellis and Councilwoman Robin Schlager sought to ease in more restrictions by changing the start times to an hour later, to 9 a.m. on weekdays and to 10 a.m. on Saturdays, and limiting the months of use. The amendments presented Jan. 5, which were tabled for further discussion, would have reduced usage by six hours a week and banned blowers throughout March.
The version of the ordinance introduced this month would limit usage of gas-powered leaf blowers to March 15 through May 15 and Oct. 15 through Dec. 15, and with the later start times. Councilmen Bill Hurlock and David Cummings both voted against it.
Some residents who called into the meeting said they “can’t escape” the noise from the blowers on most days, and that the new regulations would provide some relief. But others were concerned with the section that creates a minimum fine of $100, a maximum of $2,000, and a possible 90-day jail term for violators — the maximum that applies to municipal ordinances.
Resident Artemis Estimee suggested that the council wait to hear from the landscapers themselves.
But she said that the ordinance should be updated to remove the incarceration clause because in “this day of social justice you should not have to face prison for using a leaf blower.”
The fine of up to $2,000 and the 90-day jail term have always been attached to the noise ordinance, which covers everything from construction to trucks to music and is a state law standard, said Township Attorney Ira Karasick.
Karasick said that he does not recall anyone ever being imprisoned for a gas leaf blower violation — and didn’t expect anyone ever would be.
But Christa Rapoport, chair of the Civil Rights Commission, which advises the Township Council on civil rights issues, told Montclair Local that as long as the clause exists, there is no guarantee that no one will wind up in jail for using a leaf blower during off-hours. The group has been looking at how town ordinances, including the leaf blower ordinance, could affect people of color.
“How do we guarantee that? Not logical to allow for jail time, but a promise it won’t be enforced? — and we know who gets sent to jail,” she said.
But enforcement of any kind can be tricky, and some residents complained it doesn’t happen at all. Township Manager Timothy Stafford has said in the past that code enforcers are ready to enforce the 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.
Stafford said the town does issue violations and cited numbers from last September, when code enforcers issued 24 violations and 20 summonses.
Councilman Bob Russo said that the amendments as are modest as the town is not banning them on Sundays, as Maplewood has done, and landscapers and residents can still use we electric or battery powered blowers at any time.
Daria Paxton, owner of Gaia Gardens, has already invested in battery-powered blowers to use during the off-season, but sent out letters to her 180 clients explaining how the reduction in hours would affect fall and spring cleanups, including an increase in prices. Starting later in the spring and fall months during shorter days will also mean she can do fewer houses. Battery-operated blowers take a five-hour charge for 45 minutes of use, she said. She will also have to invest in a generator, as recharging from her truck would require her to either keep the truck running or deplete her battery power, and her cleanups will now take almost double the time, she said.
“The technology just has not caught up with people’s need to have their properties look perfect,” Paxton said, adding that March, when people are selling their homes and want their properties looking pristine, will be particularly difficult,
Montclairian Jose German-Gomez owned Green Harmony, an eco-friendly landscape company, when in 2011 he was diagnosed with asthma even though his company didn’t use leaf blowers. He said his doctors blamed the fact that he was working alongside other crews that did. (German-Gomez is the author of Montclair Local’s “Gardening for Life” column.)
Dr. Alvin H. Strelnick, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a Montclair resident, told council members at the Jan. 5 council meeting that the two-stroke engines of gas-powered leaf blowers “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 the pollution leads to asthma and could lead to cancer.
Resident Joel Katz, 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 for 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 benefit of people who want to have a leafless lawn,” Katz said.
Although the new ordinance now requires eye and ear protection, it does not require masks. But Paxton said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration already requires that employers supply N95 masks, and eye and ear protection, to their workers. According to OSHA, failure to wear proper PPE is the top violation for landscapers. Because many landscape employees are Latino, OSHA requires that classes on proper PPE be given in Spanish.
Yacobellis said the town could take a stance on masks to further enforce PPE rules in the coming months.
Cummings said he was concerned with the fact that the regulations never applied to township and county workers, who can use blowers throughout the year. He also said that he has received less than 10 emails from residents since the ordinance was “brought up.”
Hurlock said he was concerned with the potential for litigation, pointing to a suit filed by the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association and nine landscape companies in 2017 against Maplewood, after that community prohibited landscape companies from using gas-powered blowers during the summer. The suit, which is still in the courts, charges that the ban discriminates against businesses because it does not apply to private residents and the town’s DPW crews.
Yacobellis said Montclair’s ordinance does not treat homeowners and landscapers differently.
Some residents suggested the town conduct an enforcement “blitz” after leaf blowers are supposed to be put away in March, by issuing warnings.
Paxton hopes that notice also goes to homeowners, many of whom don’t understand the regulations. She also hopes this is the start of a bigger conversation that includes the landscape industry. She said she too is tired of the battle between landscapers trying to meet their customers’ expectations and residents who call her employees “stupid or lazy” for using a leaf blower. The ordinance will go through a second hearing on Feb. 16.
“It’s a tool that has been deemed evil. Maybe we could call on Elon Musk to create a tool that everyone can live with,” she said.