by Ivy Main, cross posted from Power for the People VA
Fifteen years ago, when my husband and I expanded our snug 1970s-era house, we added a screened-in porch where I hung a hammock swing. In good weather I carry my computer and coffee out to work from what I call my “summer office.”
Except on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays my neighbor’s landscaping crew descends, and then begins the racket from the lawn mowers, trimmers and, most annoyingly, leaf blowers — which somehow manages to last for hours.
Less predictable is the neighbor on the other side of us, who seems to be addicted to his two-stroke gas-powered leaf blower. He’s outside with it several times a week in all seasons, in spite of not having a lawn. The noise is insufferable, and even if I could tune it out, the pollution produced by the apparently-not-very-well-maintained engine forces us indoors with windows shut tight. Not satisfied with his own efforts, last spring he hired a crew of day-laborers with gas-powered leaf blowers to spend most of the workday making sure not a leaf remained anywhere on the property, including (I kid you not) in the woods behind his house.
I love all my neighbors, but if I could vote these machines off the planet, I would. Gas-powered leaf blowers are far and away the worst instrument of neighborly ear torture known to suburban life, and that includes pickleball.
I’m not alone in making this assessment. Local governments across the country have banished them, citing air pollution, worker health risks, harm to wildlife and contributions to global warming, as well as noise. Two years ago in Virginia, an all-volunteer advocacy group called Quiet Clean NOVApromoted a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have given localities the power to regulate or prohibit gas-powered leaf blowers. Other lawn equipment and electric leaf blowers, being much less obnoxious, were not targeted. Even drawn so narrowly, the bill died in a House subcommittee on a 5-4 vote along party lines.
This year, Quiet Clean NOVA worked with Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Saddam Salim, D-Fairfax, on a similar bill introduced in both the Virginia House and Senate. On January 11, volunteers from the group descended on Richmond with gas leaf blowers to do elected leaders the dubious favor of clearing detritus from the sidewalks around the Capitol, at full volume.
The thing about leaf blowers is that owning one is not exactly part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When I was a child – lo these many years ago – leaves were removed from grass with a rake, and that didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s quest for self-actualization.
Then, in the late 1970s, California became the first state to embrace leaf blowers. It has now become the first state to ban the gas-powered version, though without an apology to the rest of us for unleashing the scourge in the first place.
To be honest, I love power tools as much as the next homeowner. I’ve learned that a relaxed approach to leaves is better for wildlife and soil health, but a few times per year I bring out my electric leaf blower, connect it to an extension cord, and blow the accumulated leaves and debris off our roof. I do the same for our gravel driveway in the fall. The electric blower is about as loud as a vacuum cleaner, produces no fumes, and has never needed repair in the 20 years I’ve owned it. Should I ever need a new one, they sell for under a hundred bucks.
It would be a bit much to expect landscaping crews to run around tethered to extension cords, but that is where advances in battery technology come in. Battery-powered leaf blowers cost about as much as gas-powered blowers, but they are cleaner, quieter, easier to maintain and more reliable. Not to mention, the sound doesn’t penetrate walls and drive the neighbors batty. The catch is that a battery may need recharging before a big job is complete (or for my neighbor, before every leaf is out of the woods). A landscaping crew would need to carry spare batteries, which adds to the cost.
Opponents of legislation letting localities regulate gas blowers will argue that it isn’t fair to landscapers to make them invest in new equipment before the old equipment has reached the end of its useful life. A locality would have to weigh that consideration against the more diffuse, but much greater, costs to society imposed by the current use of gas blowers.
But that’s an argument about whether and how to regulate. That discussion should be had at the level of government that operates closest to neighborhoods and people, at city councils and boards of supervisors. Quiet Clean NOVA’s bill gives those localities the ability to regulate but does not require them to.
In Virginia’s General Assembly, though, even a modest bill may get caught up in the political moment. Few Virginia Republicans represent densely-populated districts where noise and pollution are serious issues. Most are blessed to represent quieter rural areas. It’s easy for some of them to frame any local regulation as an infringement on personal liberty. Still, I question whether any of these gentlefolk, when settling in for a pleasant spell on the porch, greet the sudden roaring of a leaf blower by exclaiming, “Ah! The sound of freedom!” I think they say the same unprintable things I do.
But I get the slippery slope argument. If you let communities decide for themselves whether to regulate things that harm people’s health and the environment, next thing you know they might start trying to control how people live their lives in private, possibly even banning things like drag queen story hours and library books about Black people.
Oh, wait. We’re there already, aren’t we?
So maybe let’s just look at this legislation as simply what it is: a way to give our local elected officials the right to hear the voices of their distressed constituents, crying out for a little peace and quiet.
A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 10, 2023.