By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Landscapers have accused the Montclair Township Council of catering to a “minority” of residents who find leaf blowers annoying in passing new restrictions on their use. And they say the new rules violate a settlement the township entered into with landscapers in the 1990s.
On Feb. 16, the council voted 5-2 to curtail the use of internal combustion leaf blowers to 93 days a year, down from 168, and by one hour each day.
Gas blowers had been allowed from March 1 through June 30 and from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15. But now, they’ll be restricted to March 15 through May 15 and Oct. 15 through Dec. 15. Hours will now start later — 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends.
The battle over leaf blowers goes back years, with the previous restrictions being passed in 1994. But with residents working and learning from home during the pandemic, a renewed fight ensued over the noise and exhaust the machines generate.
Michael D. Byrne of Pilgrim Pruning said a settlement was reached in the late 1990s between the town and landscapers, who at the time sued the town over restrictions set then. He contends the council is prohibited from further restrictions of leaf blowers due to the settlement. But council members didn’t address his claim at the Feb. 16 meeting.
Township attorney Ira Karasick told Montclair Local that he didn’t know anything about the “settlement,” or even if there was one.
“Courts cannot normally enjoin legislative bodies from making laws – they can only address the laws themselves,” he added.
But Byrne told Montclair Local after the meeting that “the township violated the terms of a settlement it agreed to, and it did so without notice to the other parties or to the court.”
Resident Janine Cox told the council that “these are different times” and pointed to research and knowledge gained in the last 20 years making a case against the use of gas-powered leaf blowers.
New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association president Richard Goldtsein questioned whether the stricter regulations were a consensus of the community that requires landscapers to efficiently cleans leaves, grass clippings and pollen.
“The thought that we can’t use leaf blowers in late spring to clean up grass that grows quick or not being able to clean up pollen in an efficient manner is ridiculous. Moving fall to Oct. 15 when so many trees defoliate earlier is also ridiculous,” Goldstein said. “Are we catering to a minority or has this been a majority consensus among your community?”
He also questioned the ordinance’s requirement that employers supply N95 masks, and eye and ear protection, to their workers — contending the town does not have the authority over what he said is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s domain.
Councilman Bob Russo told the landscapers they showed up late in the conversation on leaf blowers. “All of the sudden the landscapers appear,” he said.
Russo noted that in 1996, “about 63 percent” of the voters supported a leaf blower ordinance. At the time, landscapers successfully petitioned the township to place a repeal of the ordinance on the ballot, but that measure failed, according to township documents.
“This is not a new ordinance. You can still use leaf blowers and you can use electric ones throughout the year,” he said.
Councilman Bill Hurlock, an attorney, said he had serious concerns about potential litigation if the ordinance passed, and its concentration on leaf blowers but not other machines. As he has before, he pointed 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 federal courts, charges that the ban discriminates against businesses because it does not apply to private residents and the town’s DPW crews.
“You don’t make a decision because you are afraid to get sued,” he said. He noted however, the township is paying to fight other lawsuits as well.
Councilman David Cummings, who along with Hurlock voted no for ordinance, has said in the past he was concerned with the fact that the regulations never applied to township and county workers, who can use blowers throughout the year.
The council voted through the ordinance on second reading with Councilmen Peter Yacobellis and Russo, Councilwomen Robin Schlager and Lori Price Abrams and Mayor Sean Spiller approving the measure.
A handful of residents who called said they were in favor of the ordinance, but were concerned that the new regulations won’t alleviate the angst over the noise and pollution without an educational campaign and follow-up enforcement.
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 has said the town does issue violations and cited numbers from last September, when code enforcers issued 24 violations and 20 summonses.
Yacobellis, who championed the phasing in of more restrictions on gas leaf blowers, said: “Overall, I still believe we must completely phase out these devices within the next couple of years. And it is my hope that the U.S. Department of Energy begins an effort to regulate these and other devices, similar to the approach taken with household appliances. The research on the polluting factors of [internal combustion leaf blowers] is simply stunning and we need a whole of government approach to incentivize the shift to cleaner and more efficient ones, especially as the technology exponentially improves.”
Last year, Quiet Montclair was formed to educate residents on alternatives to using gas-powered leaf blowers. Spokesperson Peter Holm said the passage of the new restrictions is a positive step in a longer-term transition toward quieter, healthier and greener alternatives.
“These alternatives include battery-electric and manual tools as well as more eco-friendly and time-saving approaches to managing things like cut grass and fallen leaves. We are very glad to see Montclair joining other forward-looking communities around the region in taking action to accelerate this transition,” he said.