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The Sound and the Fury

[whitespace] Man with leaf blower
Christopher Gardner

Who'd have thought that 'leaf blowers' would become ground zero for a debate about the overarching issues of the day, including the environment, health, noise, sanity and class warfare?

By Will Harper

AS PETER GRAVES shuffles up to the witness table, people point and whisper. It really is him. He looks fit, dressed casually but tastefully in an olive long-sleeve shirt and chinos. He isn't as svelte as during his days on Mission Impossible, but he looks good for a 73-year-old.

Questions race through my mind as I ponder the back of his trademark silver mop-top: Should I ask him for an autograph? Is that his real hair? And what the hell is Peter Graves doing here today, in Room 444 of the state Capitol, at an arid meeting of the Assembly Local Government Committee?

Graves and his wife, Joan--a dainty woman dressed in perfectly matching red jacket and pumps and a pearl necklace, her age successfully hidden under layers of foundation and black hair dye--have flown up from Los Angeles to speak out against a bill threatening a new local ordinance the couple passionately supports.

Leaning into the microphone, Graves delivers his message to a handful of legislators seated behind the dais: Home rule must remain supreme, he says.

Just as Graves is about to excuse himself, baby-faced lawmaker Steve Baldwin interjects. "Mr. Graves," Baldwin ventures, "what if a city tried to ban the voting rights of African Americans?" In extreme situations like this, Baldwin continues, shouldn't the state intervene in local affairs?

Graves pauses, appearing to give careful, almost academic consideration to Baldwin's question. "There may be some cases," he acknowledges at last, reluctantly, "but this isn't one of them. Your question to me seems esoteric."

Having delivered this pronouncement, Graves' face looks flushed as he returns to his seat. His every step is followed by a chorus of stares--not just the awestruck eyes of his fans, but also hard frowns of resentment.

Two dozen or so immigrant Mexican laborers in dirt-stained baseball caps sitting in the spectator seats couldn't look more disgusted. They have come from suburbs all over California to the capital to attend this hearing. One of them, I learn later, has even participated in a hunger strike to protest the ordinance that Graves and other members of the entertainment industry such as Tony Danza and Meredith Baxter have turned into a cause célèbre.

By now it seems obvious that the issue being contemplated in Room 444 this July day must be of great import to have inspired such passion. The issue at hand: leaf blowers.

Or, to be more precise, the city-by-city banning of noise-blasting gas-powered leaf blowers, and the desire of their fans to nip in the bud such municipal insurrections.

Ever since they were introduced in the United States more than two decades ago, leaf blowers have inspired loud protests. But never has the rhetoric risen to these decibels.

This isn't just about noise anymore. It's about race, class, the unemployment rate, civil rights, public health, the environment and the overarching human need of the late 20th century: sanity.

Blow Your Mind

THERE'S NEVER been much doubt that the high-pitched, whiny noise emitted by leaf blowers could transform otherwise sane, peace-loving people into borderline sociopaths.

Just mention the name Myra Orta and landscapers roll their eyes and put on their ear protectors. Orta is known for her almost intuitive ability to scurry to the scene of any place where people are considering a ban, ready to spew out facts and export the revolution.

"I have to do this for my city, for my town, for mankind," she declares. And she is dead serious.

About 10 years ago, the proliferation of leaf blowers in her Los Altos neighborhood "made working impossible" in her home office, she says. And so she took up a hobby of sorts: dissecting the intricacies of the leaf-blower debate--a debate which, as it turns out, is the perfect host for the broad spectrum of social and political viruses that plague our era.

When leaf blowers were invented in Japan in the early 1970s and used as crop dusters, no one could have dreamed of their potential to blow normally calm suburbanites and lawmakers out of their minds. According to local agricultural tool dealer Don Howard, who owns Gardenland in Campbell, Californians discovered during the drought of the mid-1970s that the blowers were an effective, water-saving alternative to hoses--what fastidious homeowners often used to clean their driveways and sidewalks.

Leaf blowers have since made their way into the hands of not just professional landscapers in search of a time saver but also the spotless garage of Joe Tidy Guy, homeowner. Heck, for less than a hundred bucks, those little noisemakers could get stubborn leaves out of pristine Zen rock gardens. They could blow stinking gingko balls out of delicate flower beds with nary a bruised petal or broken stem. They could send unwanted dirt sky high! With no dead grass lying around, no bird feathers, no dead bugs, they could raise the bar on suburban lawn-grooming standards to an all-time Disneyland-level high.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Mike Rotkin observes that leaf blowers have created an unrealistic standard for yard maintenance in which errant leaves are considered a black mark on the homeowner's neighborhood report card. "It's like cleaning house," he says. "You can never get a house totally clean. It can always be cleaner. Well, you can never totally clean your yard, either. When you did it with a rake or broom, there was a practical limit on how clean you could get it. Now with leaf blowers, people spend hours looking for perfection."

Landscapers claim that it takes up to 50 percent longer to accomplish with a rake and broom what can be done with a leaf blower--switching back would presumably increase the costs of the service and result in a loss of business. How eliminating a labor-saving device can result in the loss of jobs is a thorny question, even for leaf-blowing proponents.

When testifying before the Assembly Local Government Committee, landscape contractor Barbara Alvarez accidentally conceded that she would have to hire more workers if blowers were banned. (She then awkwardly tried to correct herself, telling the committee she would have to charge more money, thereby losing customers and hiring fewer workers.)

To blower haters, it's simple. "They have conned these gardeners into thinking that they need these machines," Orta says with exasperation. "They don't."

Decibel Meter Sound Barriers: The newer models of leaf blowers, according to manufacturers, are in the 65 decibel range from 50 feet away, although most older models are much louder.

Christopher Gardner

Passing Gas

AND WHAT POLITICAL debate of the late 20th century would be complete without a mention of health and safety? Orta is first in line to point out that leaf blowers pose serious hazards to their users. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers noise above 85 decibels dangerous; leaf blowers register at 90 decibels and above. And even though manufacturers recommend wearing protection at all times, gardeners regularly work without protective headphones.

Many also don't wear respiratory gear, an omission with significant health risks considering the machine stirs up dangerous dust, including airborne feces and allergens such as molds and pollens.

"Blowers churn up clouds of fuel exhaust mixed with debris that should be left on the ground," argues Menlo Park ban supporter Cheryl Zaslawsky, "such as pesticides, animal droppings, bacteria, mold spores, brake dust and more."

The American Lung Association recommends that passersby avoid blowers if possible, especially if they suffer from respiratory problems.

And on the far end of the alarmist spectrum comes this: Leaf blowers are killing babies. At least so claims an attorney for an anti-blower group in Los Angeles, arguing in a recent court brief: "Approximately 45 babies a year die from SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] in Los Angeles due to airborne particulate matter and many of those deaths are attributed to dust from gas-powered leaf blowers."

In addition to dust, the blowers emit other particulates. The lung association considers air pollution caused by leaf blowers an even more serious problem. According to Margaret Leathers, executive director of the association's local chapter, leaf blowers generate as much pollution in one hour as driving a car 100 miles. In the Bay Area alone, blowers account for 1.4 tons a day of smog-forming compounds and 15 tons of carbon monoxide.

Don Howard of Gardenland counters that, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, it would take 21 years' worth of using portable gas-powered lawn equipment to equal the amount of pollution caused by cars in one year.

Different Strokes

BY 1990, AS HOMEOWNERS and gardeners grew heady with the tool's "yer-outta-here" assault on small, unwanted particles of man and nature, leaf blowers were everywhere. That's when Orta and other homebodies in Los Altos went on the attack.

"One day, they would come to the neighborhood and blow leaves from door to door, taking about 15 to 20 minutes at each house, four or five hours for the whole day," Orta recalls ruefully. "The next day, they would do the same thing on the other side of the street."

The subject's "most foremost expert" loves to dazzle people by explaining why leaf blowers drive people crazy. It has to do with noise, of course. But it's not just the level of the noise, she emphasizes; it's the quality of the noise.

While manufacturers like to point out that leaf blowers are about as loud as lawn mowers, Orta--with the backing of years of research--explains that a mower is powered by a four-stroke engine and a leaf blower uses a two-stroke engine. So while a mower's motor delivers a continuous hum, a blower's motor screeches and whines, Orta says.

Howard cautions that the two-stroke engine isn't what gives leaf blowers their peculiar sound: it's the fan and the air being sucked in that creates its annoying high-pitched whine. The newest models still have two-stroke engines, Howard reports, but they don't have the same annoying screech, thanks to redesigned fans and air-intake systems.

Rotkin and others see a possible compromise here, suggesting that one alternative is to wait out the problem by preparing a timetable for phasing out use of the older models. But few leaf-blower opponents are convinced that the redesign will make a difference. Sound experts have identified a quarter of the population that has an extreme sensitivity to high-pitched noise. In some individuals, sudden screeching noises, like the ones made by blowers, can trigger the nervous system's panic button.

"The ear is exceedingly delicate," explains Dr. Robert Blum, a Menlo Park physician and anti-leaf blower advocate. "It evolved over hundreds of millions of years to warn us of encroaching danger. The rip of a gas [leaf-blower] engine induces a startle response if one is nearby. The instinct is fight or flight. However, even if one is at a distance, the varying whine is more distracting than the 'white noise' produced by a lawn mower."

However, "white noise" of a different kind is what many immigrant gardeners around the state complain is coloring the debate about a tool they say they need to do their jobs quickly and effectively.

This Job Blows

STOCKILY BUILT, with his long black hair gathered back into a pony tail, Latino activist Adrian Alvarez studies his surroundings with eyes blazing defiance. In January he took the extreme measure of holding a hunger strike on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to get the attention of the City Council while members were in the process of severely restricting leaf blowers, thereby striking a blow for blower-wielders across the state.

Gardeners had to hold a hunger strike, he argues, to get their point across to star-struck politicians.

"One famous actor has a lot more clout than 1,000 hunger-striking gardeners," Alvarez says within earshot of ban proponents huddled outside Room 444.

To Alvarez, rich Hollywood folk like Graves are hypocrites, complaining about leaf blowers while they drive in pollution-puffing diesel cars. Alvaro Huerta, the president of the new Association of Latino American Gardeners of Los Angeles, agrees with his comrade.

"The people fighting leaf blowers," Huerta says, "99 percent of them are rich people. Some people who call themselves environmentalists have stock in Exxon and drive a Mercedes."

Orta and other ban proponents such as Zaslawsky dismiss the whole race issue as a red herring. "To win against the proposed ban," Zaslawsky argues, "the opposition needs to change the subject, because there's nothing they can say to defend the blower itself."

Blower-haters suspect the aptly named Echo Inc., the country's leading leaf-blower manufacturer, of inciting hysteria among gardeners to protect its investment. Tensions between poor immigrant gardeners and wealthy, noise-hating suburbanites didn't boil to the surface until Los Angeles muzzled the machines last year at the urging of Hollywood celebrities.

Coincidence? Myra Orta thinks not. "I wouldn't put it past [Echo lobbyist Robin] Pendergrast" to turn the debate into a Latino race issue. "It's a clever idea," she says.

Such comments--suggesting gardeners are being used by leaf-blower manufacturers and vendors as a public relations ploy to disguise their more base profit motive--make Huerta's blood boil.

"We feel those comments are racist," Huerta says, "because it implies gardeners aren't intelligent enough to organize themselves."

Pendergrast, however, attributes the tensions sparked by the Los Angeles ordinance--which prohibits gas-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of a residence--to the peculiarities of the situation there. "What made this ban unique," Pendergrast explains, "was that it happened in one of the largest U.S. cities, was backed by a minority of famous actors and actresses, but affected working-class minorities who operate small landscape and gardening businesses."

Until Los Angeles exiled the ear-whackers last year, leaf-blower bans were generally confined to small, wealthy suburban towns like Carmel, Piedmont and Los Altos.

Political Windbags

ECHO AND A VARIETY of landscaping organizations filed a lawsuit against the city over the ban, accusing it of illegally singling out the leaf blowers. Echo also found a friend in the Legislature, a state senator from Los Angeles named Richard Polanco, chair of the Latino Caucus.

Polanco's buoyant personality--he literally walks with a bounce in his step--belies his reputation for ruthless race-baiting. (Polanco financed a campaign hit piece in the primary falsely linking Senate candidate Richard Katz, a Jew, with an incident in which security guards intimidated Latinos trying to vote at a Southern California polling station.)

Polanco told the Los Angeles Times that the blower issue appealed to him because the bans discriminate against poor, disorganized gardeners. "This is about the livelihoods of families," Polanco orates. "Gardeners need these tools."

Polanco introduced SB 1651, a bill that would overturn leaf-blower bans throughout the state. When that bill died in committee, Polanco resorted to the Sacramento legislative tradition of hijacking. That's when lawmakers "gut" another bill and put in brand-new language. In this case, Polanco removed the old language in a stalled jury service bill and substituted his plan to hamstring the local bans.

The new bill added something of a compromise: Cities could impose bans on blower models that emit noise above 65 decibels. It just so happened that at the time Echo was the only manufacturer claiming a "quiet" 65-decibel model.

Soon after the new bill made its appearance, gardeners and landscapers began receiving information packets from "Californians for Quality Neighborhoods" urging support for Polanco's plan. The return address--555 Capitol Mall, Suite 600--just happens to be the address of Stoorza, Ziegaus, Metzger and Hunt, a powerful PR firm in the capital that organizes what critics call "Astroturf coalitions," industry-supported committees posing as grass-roots organizations. The California Landscape Contractors Association was the key player behind "Californians for Quality Neighborhoods."

The ploy, however, didn't work and the Legislature voted down the bill. Peter Graves and his movie-star pals prevailed.

Meanwhile, industry-supported proletariat gardeners in Los Angeles are indulging in a clever form of civil disobedience. They are circumventing the limits on gas-powered blowers by converting their tools to use methane.

But the suburban grass-roots revolt suffered a setback on Election Day when Menlo Park voters overturned a leaf-blower ban that had been in effect for only a few months.

On a grander scale, the Tyson-Holyfield of leaf-blower fights will likely take place at the state level. With their noisy victory in Menlo Park, industry insiders are enjoying a second wind in their battle to ban bans. That jovial windbag Sen. Polanco promises to reintroduce another leaf-blower bill in the Legislature next year.

Not to be outdone, Santa Cruz city burghers are threatening to weigh in. There is currently no city ordinance in Santa Cruz preventing or restricting the use of leaf blowers, but new Mayor Katherine Beiers declared her intention to take on the issue in her swearing-in speech Nov. 24.

At its Oct. 20 meeting, the City Council gave staff the go-ahead to explore ways to restrict the use of the decibel-busting blowhards--in particular how the city noise ordinance might be used to regulate high-intensity, short-duration noise.

"There was a general consensus on the council that leaf blowers are obnoxious, with sentiment ranging from a ban to regulation of hours, decibels and possibly areas of use," Rotkin says. "Some kind of regulation is definitely necessary, and within the next year I'm sure there will be. But I think it's imperative we gain input from people using these things to make a living."

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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