Leaf blowers may be banned for use outright in San Mateo as the majority of the City Council made it clear last night that the adverse health effects on its users and innocent bystanders are not worth the time saved for a more pristine-looking lawn.
Mayor Brandt Grotte and Deputy Mayor David Lim, who support the ban, also described the use of leaf blowers as a "social justice” issue since gardeners, who are typically low-wage earners, are subjected to breathing in emissions, bacteria and particulates almost constantly while they use the device.
Councilwoman Maureen Freschet was initially on the fence related to a ban but did some studying on the matter after she went on vacation and returned home to find raccoons had camped out in her backyard and left a big pile of excrement.
"I’m leaning toward supporting a ban for the health and safety of the workers” and others, Freschet said at a special study session last night.
But a long list of gardeners and landscapers said a ban would hurt their businesses and put some of them out of work.
"I will lose 50 percent of my jobs. We really need the blower. I have three kids,” said Yoshi Kamikihara, a 30-year gardener who services about 12 yards a day.
Gardener Jose Gonzalez told the council that proper education would eliminate a lot of leaf blower complaints in the city as did Ricardo Reyes, who said a ban was not reasonable.
"We have to put food on the table,” said Mario Rodriguez, among about 10 gardeners who spoke to the council last night during a public hearing.
Lim suggested garden vacuums might be a better solution than leaf blowers since the device sucks up leaves into compostible bags.
"We are using 1970s technology in the 21st century,” Lim said.
The council had three options before it last night: an outright ban; a certification program, which would limit gas-powered leaf blower noise levels to 65 decibels or less; or improved enforcement of the current leaf blower ordinance.
All three options would cost the city an additional $160,000 to $200,000 a year to implement with the creation of new jobs, according to city staff.
City staff suggested fines and fees could help offset the cost of the programs.
While health concerns were a major reason for leaning toward the ban, not all agreed.
Councilmen Jack Matthews and Robert Ross said there was not enough data to support a ban and requested more information before making a decision.
Ross said the state or even the federal government should decide the matter.
"The issue is bigger than San Mateo,” he said.
Matthews said a rake would not be a suitable tool to use to get the leaves off his roof.
"A rake is not always useful,” Matthews said.
Lim suggested that if the city does ban leaf blowers, then it could possibly subsidize the gardeners who would gravitate toward the more sustainable vacuum devices.
"We don’t want to penalize the gardeners but find ways to give them the proper tools, to find alternatives,” Lim said.
Jay Finkelstein, however, said the city’s current ordinance could work if the city were to enforce it.
Leaf blowers, he said, make quick, efficient work out of a job that could "otherwise be hours of drudgery.” Finkelstein is a former San Mateo Public Works commissioner.
Earlier this year, the Burlingame City Council amended its municipal code to restrict the use of leaf blowers by day, hour and zone.
Some questioned why the city was not moving in that direction.
The council will not take the issue up formally until early 2013 when it makes a vote on amending its municipal code related to leaf blowers.
The city’s police department fields between 30 and 40 complaints a year related to leaf blowers, according to a staff report.
Currently, leaf blowers are allowed to be used weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Use is prohibited on Sundays and major holidays.
The City Council adopted a leaf blower ordinance in 1997.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.