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[whitespace] leaf blowers
Christopher Gardner

With public health, the environment, peace and quiet--and now race--thrown into the mix, the leaf-blower debate proves there's no argument that can't be blown out of proportion to support special interests in the late 20th century. And when the dust settles on the state's noisy debate, the sound will echo for miles.

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 all the way from the suburbs of 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.

"You should win the award for Hypocrite of the Year," one Latino activist snarls at the famous couple.

By now it seems obvious that the issue being contemplated in Room 444 this July day must be of great import. It has attracted celebrity spokespeople, inspired a hunger strike and even been compared to revoking voting rights for black Americans.

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 any future municipal insurrections against them.

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.

IF THERE WAS ANY DOUBT that the high-pitched, whiny noise emitted by leaf blowers could transform otherwise sane, peace-loving people into borderline sociopaths, "Catwoman" actress Julie Newmar put it to rest. In a move that attracted national attention, the lithe Hollywood starlet last year spray painted the word ruido--Spanish for noise--in the alley outside a neighbor's house when he refused to stop his gardener from using a blower.

"At least I got his attention," Newmar purred to a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Closer to home, a woman recently suggested to the Sunnyvale City Council that users of leaf blowers be forced to wear collars that would shock them every time they made too much noise--like the kind used for dogs who bark too much.

And then there's the case of Robert Blum, a physician who works in an emergency room at night and sleeps in his Menlo Park home during the day. At least he tries. Leaf blowers often wake him up. Never mind that he's exhausted. On the subject of leaf blowers, he is fanatical and tireless. And Blum says he doesn't usually get involved in politics, except maybe for something really important like disarming nuclear weapons.

Los Altos interior designer Myra Orta hates leaf blowers so much, she has made eliminating them from the face of the earth her life's passion. In her raspy Scarsdale accent she calls them the "tool of the devil."

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 facts spelling out the evils of the devil's tool, exporting 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 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 plaguing the late 20th century.

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Most local efforts to ban leaf blowers have fallen on deaf ears.

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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 B.L.B (Before Leaf Blowers).

Within 20 years, leaf blowers had made their way into the hands of not just professional landscapers in search of a timesaver, 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 pieces lying around, no bird feathers, no fuzzies, no dead bugs, they could raise the bar on suburban lawn-grooming standards to an all-time Disneyland-level high.

Mike Rotkin, a councilman for Santa Cruz, where a ban is currently being considered, 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."

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. 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.

Don Howard, out at Gardenland, cautions that the two-stroke engine in and of itself isn't what gives leaf blowers their peculiar sound. No, he says, it's the fan and the air being sucked in by the blower that creates its annoying high-pitched whine. The throttle varies the intensity of the sound from low to high. The newest models still have two-stroke motors, Howard reports, but they don't have the same annoying screech, thanks to redesigned fans and air-intake systems.

Few leaf-blower opponents, however, are convinced that the redesign will make a difference. Sound experts have identified that a quarter of the population 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," Dr. Blum explains. "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.

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 starstruck politicians.

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

To Alvarez, rich Hollywood folk like Graves are supreme hypocrites, complaining about the pollution produced by 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 Mercedes."

What really makes Huerta's blood boil, though, is when ban proponents like Myra Orta--who also drives a diesel car--suggest gardeners are being used by leaf-blower manufacturers and vendors as a public relations ploy to disguise their more base profit motive.

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

As if there weren't enough in the political stew pot, race is a recurring issue now in the debate over leaf blowers.

Even in the sleepy academic sanctuary of Menlo Park, where a leaf-blower ban was struck down in a ballot referendum, the specter of racism has been brought to the forefront of the debate.

During a March hearing of the Menlo Park City Council, longtime gardener and shop owner Ramon Quezada openly wondered, "We've been thinking if the gardeners were somebody else--another racial group--this wouldn't be happening." (Quezada, the president of the nascent Bay Area Gardeners Association, has backed away from his claims of racism since joining forces with white leaf-blower-using landowners in Menlo Park to undo the ban.)

Orta and other ban proponents such as downtown Menlo Park resident Cheryl 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."

leaf blowers 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



WHETHER LEAF BLOWERS really help poor people is, like every other point raised in the leaf-blower war, subject to intense and heated debate. Take the case of two day laborers in San Jose. Usually by 8am on a Tuesday morning, Marcelino and Leonardo and their compadres would be hanging out near the corner of Story and King roads in San Jose waiting to land freelance gardening work for the day.

But today they and two other gardeners have to go to the state Department of Labor in downtown San Jose, where they embark upon a cleanup of a different nature.

Both of them place their "official" paperwork on the table in front of them. Marcelino has kept track of the hours he's worked by making notations on the back of a Lotto ticket.

Leonardo, his curly black hair matted down and mussed, responds to hearing officer Alfred Weaver's questions with a quiet "."

The substance of the four laborers' allegations is similar: All of them at some point this year were hired by a man named "Silva," who let them blow leaves and dust and cigarette butts into the netherworld for many days and never paid them a red cent. The mysterious "Silva" owes one of them as much as $4,200 including penalties.

The worker named Celestino tells Weaver through a translator that he had even taken the trouble to go to Silva's house demanding payment. Instead, he says, Silva pushed him and told him to get out.

Judge Weaver adjourns and promises a ruling by the end of the month. (He later ruled in favor of the workers.)

So not all landscape companies function as social services agencies. Outside, Marcelino tells me other stories about how this particular landscaping boss wouldn't even give him or his friends lunch breaks during a 10-hour workday.

But those are the risks and drawbacks of the business of being a freelance landscape laborer in California.

Despite the problems, Marcelino points out, he can make 20 times more money each day in the U.S. than in Mexico, where he could earn $3 a day for the work he does here--enough to buy tortillas and not too much else. When he gets paid, he can make $50 to $60 a day, which he sends home to support his three kids down in Veracruz.

Neither Marcelino nor Leonardo seems too clued in to the suburban rage over leaf blowers. I gather from their comments that leaf blowers allow them to do their jobs faster. They don't really mind the infernal things, it seems--not the noise, the dust or the dirty looks of neighbors. They just want their jobs.

Landscapers go so far as to claim that it takes up to 50 percent longer to accomplish with a rake and broom what can be done with a leaf blower.

But as ban proponent Julie Kelts observes, "How does eliminating a labor-saving device result in the loss of jobs?"

Hmmm. That is a thorny question, apparently even for leaf-blowing proponents. Just think of how many jobs could be created if leaf blowers were traded in for rakes.

For example, landscape contractor Barbara Alvarez kind of accidentally conceded when testifying before the Assembly Local Government Committee 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 the blower haters, it's simple. "They have conned these gardeners into thinking that they need these machines," Orta says with exasperation. "They don't."

AND WHAT POLITICAL debate of the late 20th century would be complete without a mention of worker 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; the user experiences noise from a leaf blower at 90 decibels and above. And even though manufacturers recommend wearing protection at all times, gardeners can regularly be seen blowing away without protective headphones.

Many also don't wear respiratory gear, a significant health risk considering the machine blows dangerous dust into the air and lungs, including airborne feces and allergens such as molds and pollens.

The health risks posed by gas-powered blowers, opponents say, don't stop with the person operating the device. The debris kicked up into the air can negatively affect people living and working in the area, even those who aren't bothered by the noise.

"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 (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) SIDS 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, one hour of using a gas-powered leaf blower generates as much pollution as driving a car for 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.

Blower-ban fanatics argue that it's a matter of function: Cars are indispensable to people who commute to work, transport their kids to school or drive to the mountains to escape the noise of their neighborhoods. Leaf blowers, which are usually employed to blow debris into the street or a neighbor's yard, are an exercise in futility, they say.

The Web site for Zero Air Pollution, an environmental group in Southern California, puts it this way: "Leaf blowers are ineffective. They serve no other use than to move garbage onto neighbors' property, where other gardeners often blow them back."

BLOWER-HATERS SUSPECT the aptly named Echo Inc., the country's leading leaf-blower manufacturer, of inciting hysteria among gardeners to protect its investment.

In nearly every anti-blower campaign around the state, class and race have been an unspoken aspect of the debate. But 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.

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."

There's no denying, however, that quieting blowers in Los Angeles will put a dent in Echo's annual earnings statement. California represents 10 percent of the overall market for portable power tools. And Los Angeles is the largest market for power blowers in the world.

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.

"[A] stand had to be made in L.A.," Pendergrast told a trade magazine in February.

Echo and a variety of landscaping organizations filed a lawsuit against the city over the ban, accusing it of illegally singling out the leaf blower for discrimination.

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 among some of his peers 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. Nowhere in the packet do the senders identify who makes up this new coalition.

The return address, though, gave a strong clue: 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 industry-favored bill to ban bans throughout the state. Peter Graves and his movie-star pals prevailed. They could keep their little leaf-blower law in Los Angeles and so could any other city--for now.

IN THE MEANTIME, metaphorical leaves from the class struggle keep blowin' in the wind throughout the state, if not the whole country. (There are some 300 bans across the United States.)

Those who control the means of (leaf) propulsion--the capitalist power-tool manufacturers--are hoping to stop the revolution from spreading (first it was quaint Los Altos, then it was metropolitan Los Angeles!) by educating gardeners on the finer points of leaf-blower courtesy--like not firing up the noisy nuisances at 4:30am. The thinking is that what people really object to is rudeness, not noise--kind of a "mind if I smoke?" attempt to forestall the inevitable.

Meanwhile, industrialist-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.

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

Other Peninsula cities like Palo Alto and Atherton were closely watching the Menlo Park referendum--presumably with their doors and windows latched tightly--as they weighed their regulatory options. Blower-haters in Menlo Park are blaming this recent loss on a lack of funding against a powerful, big-bucks industry, as is wont to happen in all grass-roots campaigns.

But on a grander scale, the Tyson-Holyfield of leaf-blower fights will likely take place on another front. This week, a coalition of gardeners and other industry insiders is congregating in Sacramento to discuss their battle strategy. With their noisy victory in Menlo Park, one topic for discussion will be whether to launch a statewide initiative campaign to ban bans.

And considering California's proclivity for wedge initiatives that split the population along class, economic and racial lines, a leaf-blower initiative at the end of the millennium would be a fitting epilogue to the divisive legacies of propositions 187, 209 and 227.

And if this doesn't pan out, that jovial windbag Sen. Polanco isn't finished yet. Not by a long shot. He promises he's going to reintroduce another leaf-blower bill in the Legislature next year, which means the same cast of blowhards will be returning to Room 444 in the state Capitol to get baby-killers off their lawns and protect the constitutional right of brown-skinned immigrant gardeners to blow leaves into the street, the air and the lungs of coughing people.

And if anyone has their hearing intact or their sanity remaining, it should be quite a showdown. In the moment when the votes are cast, with the audience seats packed to the hilt by warring factions of clashing socioeconomic groups, it will be quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

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From the November 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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