By Jonathan Greenberg
March 17, 2011
The issue of our Sebastopol City Council regulating the usage of leaf blowers has flowered into one of the most robust public policy debates imaginable.
A good number of the citizens and real estate or landscaping businesses who overflowed the City Council public comment period on March 15 to express themselves on the subject had probably never been to a City council meeting before. Many were irate that their rights to choose their landscaping tools, or to have their landscapers use the least expensive tools, were being taken from them by an over reaching city government. Others, like me, believe that it is a central role of responsive local government to regulate the rights of some citizens to pollute the air of their neighbors and create deafeningly disruptive noises any time they choose.
What we have is a classic battle between private interest and public good, with our City Council working to balance the needs of both sides. On one side, real estate owners, managers, landscape businesses, and some homeowners, believe this will cost them money, and that government is over-reaching when it legislates to modify their behavior. On the other side are a larger number (about two- thirds, according to poll now running on PD’s Sonoma Watch) of homeowners, renters and businesses, who want to change the existing system to protect our air and eardrums, believing that for most uses, alternative solutions to gas powered leaf blowers (rakes and brooms), which kept lawns and parking lots clean for centuries, should be encouraged through mandated restrictions or (some believe) outright bans.
After listening to some very thoughtful public comments, and speaking, afterward, to a number of those opposed to what our group (the Sebastopol Peaceful Air Effort--SPARE) is expressing, I am struck my how thorny this issue is—and how honored I feel to be part of a community in which our elected officials are listening. It has taken a lot of courage for Mayor Guy Wilson and Council Members Michael Kyes and Sarah Gurney to vote to get our small green city moving toward regulating leaf blowers—something which many mostly larger California cities, including Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Mill Valley, have effectively done.
There really is no fundamental right or wrong about this issue. Well-intentioned people come from different perspectives, practices and businesses. A landscaper did not want to lose financially strapped clients because he would have to charge more for spending more time raking, a method he believes to be much less efficient than blowing. On the other hand, I, and many others, do not like our in-town businesses being disrupted by deafening, relentless noise, and our children's air polluted by what we, and the California EPA, regard as toxic particulate matter. A real estate owner does not want to have to raise rents to pay higher landscaping costs, while a massage therapist or tutor finds it difficult to practice their trade while a leaf blower nearby is shattering their clients’ nerves.
How much right does someone have to pollute before our elected officials intervene? We all probably agree that people should be forbidden to smoke cigars in elevators and schools and buses—but everyone did not always agree on that, and stores selling tobacco products have been hurt as a result of smoking bans. You can be sure that they 30 years ago, they would have turned out in force at a public comment section if smoking bans were being considered by their City Council.
Yet the right to regulate noise and air has been upheld by the Supreme Court as a fundamental role of local government, even though polluters, from those opposed to smog checks on their cars to multinational energy conglomerates fighting state emissions controls for their coal plants, have protested mightily against regulations that might cost them money.
Citizens and businesses that want to continue using leaf blowers as they have done for 30 years want Sebastopol’s elected officials to know that any regulation should be written in a way that respects their right to use what they regard as the more cost efficient, useful tools.
Many other citizens and businesses, including the hundred who have signed SPARE's paper petition and the many others who have signed online at http://www.progressivesource.org/SebastopolPeacefulAirEffort/ want our Council Members to "effectively restrict" the usage of leaf blowers, which means significantly curtailing their use in our community.
What to do? Even the legendary King Solomon would have had a hard time with this one!
As our city council figures this out, and works with all viewpoints to craft a compromise ordinance sure to make all sides in the debate somewhat unhappy, every civics class and debate teacher in the area ought to assign their students a study of the Sebastopol’s leaf blower debate.
Because this is one for the textbooks!
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Jonathan Greenberg, of the Sebastopol Peaceful Air Effort, is founder and CEO of Progressive Source Communications and TV1.com. An author and investigative journalist, his work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, GQ, New York Magazine, Forbes and Money.