By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
An Essex County Superior Court judge has denied a landscape company’s challenge to Montclair’s newest restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers.
On Aug. 27, Judge Lisa Adubato denied Dente Landscaping’s request to prohibit Montclair from enforcing an updated ordinance that further limited what times of the year gas-powered blowers could be used. She also denied Dente’s request that the township dismiss any summonses currently pending for alleged violations.
Dente is one of the same companies that sued the township when Montclair first began limiting gas-powered leaf blowers in 1995. In 2000, the township and Dente reached a settlement that limited when the blowers could be used, but allowed a broader date range than the township first set — ultimately restricting their use to March 1 to June 10 and Oct. 1 to Dec. 15. The landscapers agreed to dismiss the suit. For 20 years, gas-powered leaf blower usage by both residents and landscapers was limited to those dates.
But in February, the Township Council voted 5-2 to further restrict usage to March 15 through May 15, and Oct. 15 through Dec. 15. Starting times are now an hour later as well — 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends. In all, the new rules cut down the amount of days of allowed usage in a given year from 168 to 93.
Dente’s attorney, David J. Mairo, filed a civil action on June 9 with Essex County Superior Court asking the court to enforce the terms of the settlement. Mairo argued that the settlement agreement was a binding contract between the township and the landscapers that could never be broken as it didn’t have an end date. By passing an ordinance that reduced the allowable hours of usage, the township had breached that agreement, he said.
In a brief to the court, Mairo stated: “In the settlement agreement, the defendant accepted an obligation to allow the use of leaf blowers during certain periods of time. In exchange, plaintiffs surrendered — for all time — their right to challenge the underlying 1995 ordinance. The defendant could have required the settlement agreement to be time-limited. It did not. Defendant could have included re-opener language permitting it to amend or revise the terms and conditions it was agreeing to. It did not.”
Township Attorney Ira Karasick told the judge that because the settlement did not state a time limit, it can’t bind future councils from exercising their police powers under the Faulkner form of government, especially 21 years later.
Karasick also argued that the Township Council should not be “forever barred” from taking a view of the impact of gas blowers on public health and safety that’s different from the one it took in 2000.
On Aug. 27, Mairo argued that the township, in 2000, could have added to the settlement reasons that would let the agreement be changed — for instance, “should science prove gas-powered blowers have an adverse affect on health.”
But the judge held that the settlement could not bind the current governing body.
In the end, she supported the township’s position that a municipality can not be bound to an agreement in perpetuity unless by another statutory authority, which is not the case.
She said that 21 years was a reasonable amount of time in which the hours stated in the agreement were kept.
Bob Russo, former mayor and a longtime councilman who helped spearhead the law in 1995, said: “I’m glad to see the ordinance I worked on over 25 years ago upheld by the court. We want to ensure a quieter, more peaceful Montclair, especially during the spring and summer seasons.”
Peter Holm, spokesperson for Quiet Montclair, a group that says on its website it’s dedicated to reducing “the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in favor of quieter and healthier Montclair,” said, “This is a win for cleaner air, worker and public health, and quality of life in our neighborhoods, and we hope that those companies that have not been complying with the law will now begin to do so.”
The township, as of June 10, had issued nine summonses to eight different landscaping companies charging violations of the partial-year gas leaf blower ban. Those summonses were expected to result in court dates. In addition, at that point, the township had issued five warnings to landscapers for allegedly using gas blowers since the ban went into effect.
Montclair Local on Aug. 27 submitted a public records request for updated figures and is awaiting a response.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who penned the new ordinance, said it was a compromise.
“It responded to the demands of the community in a way that I believe respected the need to give companies and consumers time to adapt,” Yacobellis said, adding that he will push to have “these polluting, noisy devices completely phased out in the years ahead.”
Only two towns in New Jersey — Montclair and Maplewood — currently have any limitations on gas-powered leaf blowers.