In 1994, the village passed its first piece of legislation to hamper the debilitating noise emanating from leaf blowers. Compared to nearby municipalities, Scarsdale was relatively early in dealing with the leaf blower noise nuisance and village staff had spent months looking at scientific research and considering opinions from the professional landscaping community and the general public. Through this extensive dialogue, the village board came up with a compromise: prohibit gas-powered leaf blowers from June 1 to Sept. 30, with exclusions for golf courses, municipal properties and schools.
The village leaf-blower regulations were established 26 years ago, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March ignited a call from residents and the Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) to limit leaf blower noise pollution further. With residents forced to work and study from home, gas-powered leaf blowers have become an annoyance. Meanwhile, some nearby municipalities have started taking action — Larchmont and Irvington recently voted to totally ban gas-powered leaf blowers.
In a work session on Jan. 12, trustees voted unanimously to bring forward three potential amendments to the code that regulates gas-powered leaf blowers.
The amendments reflect proposals put forth in a 14-page report from the CAC, which introduced three options for extending the time gas-powered leaf blowers are disallowed, while also creating “quiet days” for gas-powered leaf blower usage during the fall season. Option 1 would ban gas-powered leaf blowers from January to September and limit gas-powered leaf blowers during the fall season to Tuesday through Friday. Option 2 would ban gas-powered leaf blowers from May to September and limit gas-powered leaf blowers during the fall season to Tuesday through Friday, as well. Option 3 would ban gas-powered leaf blowers from May to September and limit gas-powered leaf blowers during the fall season to Monday through Friday.
All three options would allow electric leaf blowers to be used year-round, disallow gas-powered leaf blowers during federal holidays and still exempt municipal properties and schools from the regulations. Golf courses are also exempt but will not be allowed to use gas-powered leaf blowers within 100 feet of a residence.
After a labyrinthine discussion among trustees, the board decided to bring forward multiple choices for public discussion. A public hearing will be held for both Option 1, Option 3 and a hybrid of the two, wherein Option 3 would be adopted into law and Option 1 would be phased in, in January 2022.
“We’re trying to basically strike a balance,” said Michelle Sterling, the chair of the CAC. Sterling supports the adoption of Option 1 (the most far-reaching of the three options). She said the committee wanted to release suggestions that were “reasonable and feasible” and that would satisfy residents who moved to the suburbs for peace and quiet and residents who wanted a manicured lawn.
“People are aware about environmental issues in this town. It’s one of the things that makes me really proud to be in this town,” Sterling said. “Between the noise pollution and the air pollution and the health damage to us, to our environment and to the landscapers … people care.”
According to Sterling, 50% of Scarsdale homeowners hire landscapers. If Option 1 was adopted, homeowners who complete their own landscaping would need to transition to electric leaf blowers if they plan on clearing leaves on weekends.
Option 1, the most expansive ban of all the options, would disallow gas-powered leaf blowers for an additional six months and shift spring cleanup to electric leaf blowers only. Trustee Justin Arest said he supported Option 3, which extends a gas-powered leaf blower ban by one month and allows those leaf blowers through the spring cleanup. Arest had concerns about Option 1 and the potential limitations for spring cleanup if only electric leaf blowers were allowed. Mayor Marc Samwick said he supported Option 3 as an incremental step, and the village could transition to further restrictions after assessing the success of the new provision.
“Providing at least some window for that spring cleanup I think is important,” he said.
Members of the village staff and public shared their thoughts on spring cleanup, including Superintendent of Public Works Jeff Coleman, who said he believed the spring could be “problematic on an individual basis.”
Former Scarsdale Mayor Edward Morgan, who also served as the chair of the village board’s law committee that studied the original leaf blower provision, wrote in a letter to the board on Jan. 9 that Option 1 seemed “fine as a next step in gradually moving away from highly polluting operations” but also shared concerns about gas-powered leaf blower limitations during the spring cleanup.
Morgan suggested the village allow gas-powered leaf blowers for a week during the spring cleanup period and publicize it to the landscaping companies that serve the community.
“Instead of having things wide open as the current local law would do, my suggestion was that the local law authorize the village manager … to make a determination on when is the right time,” Morgan told the Inquirer. “Will that work? I can’t promise that. But I think there should be an effort … and if it works that would help the gardeners a little bit.”
Sterling said Scarsdale properties that are already using electric leaf blowers during spring cleanup are being used successfully. Although the cubic feet per minute (CFM) output from gas-powered leaf blowers is still much higher compared to electric leaf blowers, Sterling said electric leaf blowers can still compete.
Michael Iorio, president of the New York State Turf & Landscape Association, told the Inquirer he would love for electric leaf blowers to be on par in terms of power and capacity to gas-powered blowers, but if landscapers were forced to use electric leaf blowers during spring cleanup, it would take longer.
“It’s like cutting a tree with a chainsaw or cutting it like Paul Bunyan with an axe,” he said.
In the four grass cutting crews he manages for his business, Iorio said he has one electric leaf blower in each truck and that the blowers “don’t hold up” and don’t have the power or battery capacity to fully clear leaf debris.
“If you take away [the gas-powered blowers], the electric just doesn’t do it,” said Iorio. “Is there a place [for electric leaf blowers]? Yes; in the summer, a little fall cleanup, yes, but not in the main time of the year.”
In a written statement, Iorio, the association’s government affairs chair Larry Wilson and chairman Joseph Tinelli wrote that the association didn’t have the opportunity to present their views during the work session on Jan. 12, even though they were in attendance. Iorio told the Inquirer the group was present during the Zoom meeting but that public comment speakers had been “preselected.”
Six people spoke during the public comment portion of the work session. Trustee Lena Crandall who was running the meeting told the Inquirer that the village “absolutely” did not preselect speakers and that she was “distressed” to hear that association members were not able to participate.
Iorio also took issue with Option 1 and 2’s limitations that exclude leaf blowing from Saturday through Monday. Though he said Sunday should be “a day of rest if possible,” he sees the restriction as telling him and other landscapers that he is only allowed to work four days a week.
With the current law, enforcement has been a hurdle. Some landscapers who break the current law and are fined for using gas-powered leaf blowers during restrictive times see it as the cost of doing business. Iorio said he didn’t support those in the industry who broke the law.
“We don’t want to break the law, we want to work within the law fairly,” he said.
In the last 10 years, the Scarsdale Police Department has averaged 70 tickets per year for leaf blower violations. Police Chief Andrew Matturro said the enforcement had been “ineffective” in changing behavior. Village Manager Steve Pappalardo agreed and said enforcement on leaf blower code items had always been “problematic.”
In order to properly enforce the current code and whatever changes are potentially made, Pappalardo suggested that the village bring in a group of part-time seasonal employees that are dedicated to leaf blower law enforcement. The employees would take the load off of the police department and actively enforce the law, rather than the current structure which relies heavily on residents calling in potential rule breakers.
Though she agreed with Pappalardo, Sterling said hiring part-time employees would have budget implications and that she didn’t think it was a reasonable request for the upcoming budget year. Instead, Sterling said the code change would cause a “market driven shift.”
“If you want to be doing business in Scarsdale, you’ll be doing more business if part of your fleet is electric,” she said. “No one’s going to want to lose business. So, people will slowly start converting over and, as they do, they will get more business.”
Multiple members of the public also showed their support for adopting Option 1, including Friends of the Scarsdale Parks representative Madelaine Eppenstein, resident Elaine Weir and Darlene LeFrancois Haber, a local physician.
“The landscapers themselves are the ones who are at most risk. This is a social determinants of health issue. They don’t wear protection. They should but they don’t. They lose their hearing. They all have headaches by the end of the day. They’re putting themselves at risk for cancers and lung disease and they get it and I take care of them as patients,” she said. “We need to do the right thing. Not only for ourselves but for them. Our actions affect our neighbors.”