A Growing Clamor Over Leaf Blowers

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006

The autumn leaves -- looking particularly good this year -- have begun their dazzling avalanche. Honey, pass me the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones.

The whining roar of the leaf blower begins in earnest, filling the November air with a seasonal symphony: the growl of the gasoline engine, the siren call of its inner fan, the steady hiss of air blasting to 200 miles per hour. Electric versions, a little quieter, replace the gas engine's howls with a high-pitched scream that seems to gnaw at something deep in the brain.

This layer of sounds, a cacophony unknown to man or beast until a generation ago, now seems to define the landscape's passage to winter. Manufacturers of leaf blowers shipped a record 2.74 million gas-powered units this year alone. In addition, more than 3 million electric blowers are sold annually in North America. That's a whole lot of wind for sale.

When you think about it, the leaf blower forms an uncanny reflection of the fault lines in modern American society: It's a machine reviled by leftward-thinking intellectuals and beloved by red-blooded, horsepower junkies. It is an essential work mate of the laboring immigrant classes.

Montgomery County bans the sale and use of leaf blowers generating more than 70 decibels, but most area jurisdictions seek to regulate them through general noise ordinances that restrict hours of use. Elsewhere, however, they are banned outright.

Blower bashing reached a peak in the late 1990s when Peter Graves, Meredith Baxter and other Hollywood stars lobbied politicians to prohibit the machine. More than 20 communities in California joined Los Angeles in banning them, the latest the generally serious-minded and well-heeled citizens of Palo Alto.

Since the ban was enacted by the city council in June of last year, most of the complaints have been against landscape maintenance crews. Stacey Henderson is the Palo Alto police department's officer assigned to enforce the ban, which affects residential areas. In the city's sylvan neighborhoods, she issues two warnings to each offender and then a citation. "I've had one gardener who's been cited seven times, and it's $100 a ticket," she said. "He just won't stop."

Henderson has sent out more than 5,000 warning letters to residents and their landscapers who have been subject to complaint. The result has been a quieter city, she said, though the rainy season is approaching, when the landscapers like to switch back to gas blowers to avoid getting electric shocks.

In Santa Barbara, where a similar ban on gas blowers went into effect eight years ago, "it's a lot better, but it's not perfect because there are still the electric ones," said Ashleigh Brilliant, who led the ballot initiative to enact the ban. "There are still people who defy the law, but the streets are much quieter and I think there's less dust in the air."

Brilliant by trade is an epigrammatist: He coins witticisms. He is particularly fond of one: "There are worse things than noise, but I can't think of any because of all the noise." A little verbose for my tastes, I prefer his "Make peace, not noise." Or, "Honk if you like peace and quiet."

Like an increasing number of people in the 21st-century cyberworld, Brilliant works from home, and it's the residential neighborhoods that can get aurally assaulted for hours on end.

"More people are working from home," said Brilliant, "and there just isn't an awareness of how badly detrimental noise can be as a factor in one's life."

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