Several days a week, Stan and Kiyomi Hutchings relax on their brick-lined backyard patio in Old Palo Alto. They enjoy reading under the wisteria canopy and eating lunch on blue-and-white cotton tablecloths next to their burbling, cherub-adorned fountain.
What they don't enjoy, though, is the burst of noise that periodically erupts on the other side of the fence and the cloud of dust that wafts over, bringing more than just hot air into their yard and their lungs and onto their food.
"We know what's in it," said Stan Hutchings, who happens to be a retired analytical chemist. "It's terrible."
The periodic disturbance is courtesy of a gas-powered leaf blower. Technically, the equipment is illegal to use in Palo Alto's residential neighborhoods, but you wouldn't know it when driving or walking down the city's leafy streets.
Midtown resident Bill Rosenberg figures that if he were deputized by the police to hand out citations to people using the leaf blowers (the fine for a violation is $100), he could issue a half-dozen every day as he bikes around town. In fact, he's taken to handing out a leaf-blower FAQ, drawn from information on the police department's website, to offending gardeners and homeowners.
A few recipients have been "mildly abusive" toward him verbally, Rosenberg said of the reactions he's gotten. They've asked, "'Are you the police? ... If you're not the police, then get out of the way,'" he recalled recently.
Most people, however, simply turn off the combustion-fueled machine until he leaves.
Neither Rosenberg nor the Hutchingses believes the leaf-blower issue is the most critical problem in town, despite the irritating noise and air pollution. They acknowledge that the police department has priorities that take precedence over catching people in the act of blowing leaves. Burglars need to be caught; traffic accidents should be attended to.
But it frustrates them that the city ordinance is, essentially, being flagrantly ignored.
"It's not a silly law," Rosenberg said, citing the hazardous pollution created by the gas-powered leaf blowers. "We should get rid of them." (Read "More than hot air")
Rosenberg's is only the most recent rallying cry in a long history of residents' rage against the machines.
Palo Alto's leaf-blowing ordinance was adopted in its present form in 2005, but the rules governing the blowers first sprang up three decades earlier and shifted with political winds over time.
The blowers were initially treated like most other noisy equipment legal until they hit a certain loudness threshold when the city adopted noise standards back in 1972. Then, with citizens' complaints about gas-powered leaf blowers on the rise, the City Council agreed in 1988 to restrict use of those with noise levels of 82 decibels or higher. The threshold was dropped to 75 decibels the following year and the hours of operation were restricted to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays and holidays.
But the whiny roars of gas-powered leaf blowers continued to harass local eardrums through the 1990s. In 2000, the council revised its ordinance yet again, requiring that all commercial operators be trained and certified on the proper use of leaf blowers, according to a 2005 report from the Police Department.
Another new clause, whose adoption was deferred to July 2005, prohibited gas-powered leaf blowers in residential areas. It also prohibited all leaf blowers that do not bear a manufacturer's label guaranteeing a noise level of 65 decibels or lower when measured from a distance of 50 feet. Scofflaws would face a $100 fine, though the amount would go up for subsequent violations under a revision that the council approved in 2010. That law remains in effect to this day.
Through all of the debates over whether and how to regulate leaf blowers, professional gardeners and those representing them have pushed back, stating that the powerful equipment is essential to their livelihoods. When concerns have been raised about the detrimental effects to gardeners' health caused by the dust, they've responded that the California Air Resources Board already has stringent standards that sufficiently address air pollution from blowers. Not only that, but gardeners are capable of taking precautions to protect themselves.
To the issue of noise, they've pointed to new models that now make gas leaf blowers quieter than other lawn-care equipment. Then they've raised their own concerns about potential electrocution when using electric-powered leaf blowers and the loss of customers because of increased rates.
Palo Alto's ongoing desire to govern leaf blowers is far from unique. In the past year or two, the noise from concerned residents up and down the Peninsula has been getting louder. Burlingame, Los Gatos, San Mateo and Sunnyvale have wrestled with the problem during the past year, with each city council trying to find the perfect balance between education and enforcement.
In Sunnyvale, council members voted in March to ban all leaf blowers in residential zones, though they also agreed to defer enforcement on the ban for a year and a half so that city officials will have time to educate the community about the new restriction.
The Los Gatos ban, which took effect in January, applies to all gas-powered leaf blowers as well as to electric leaf blowers with noise levels of more than 65 decibels, measured from 50 feet away. Other cities in California with bans or restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers include Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Laguna Beach.
The town of Los Altos was at the forefront on this issue, having adopted an outright ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in 1991. Menlo Park followed suit in 1998, though its ordinance was promptly overturned by referendum.
In the 10 years since Palo Alto adopted its ban, the debate has shifted from strengthening the ordinance to merely respecting it. The law, critics say, simply isn't being enforced.
They have a point. While in the early years of the ordinance, officers issued warnings and citations, today gardeners are about as likely to get in trouble for operating loud leaf blowers as for removing tags off mattresses or recording a baseball game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.
The economic recession of 2008 had a lot to do with the recent downturn in enforcement. But it was also a result of the police department prioritizing its response to leaf-blower complaints toward the bottom of the heap. Then, as now, Palo Alto officers made no secret of the fact that they often have more important things to do than admonish gardeners for making too much noise.
When the ban launched on July 1, 2005, the number of complaints about too-loud gardening shot up. In the first year, the city received 559 calls about gas-powered leaf blowers. In response, the city issued 559 "first letters" to the address where the violation had occurred, 107 "final letters" and 34 citations, according to city data. The city had a designated phone line for leaf-blowing violations and a community-service officer assigned to track and respond to complaints.
Over the next few years, the calls kept coming. In 2008, the Police Department received 585 calls for service, resulting in 322 issued reports (which includes both warnings and citations), according to data obtained by the Weekly. In 2009, the department received 487 calls for service about leaf blowers and responded with 359 reports, the Police Department data show. (In some cases, people relied on the phone line a bit too much. In responding to one complaint, for instance, the community-service officer determined that the alleged violator "did not have a gardener, did not own a leaf blower, and that there were some other unresolved neighbor issues.")
Then came the recession and, with it, years of budget cuts and difficult decisions. In 2010, the Police Department eliminated the community-service officer position. The dedicated line was scrapped, and citizen complaints were directed to central dispatch, where they were joined by every other non-emergency complaint.
City Manager James Keene and Administrative Services Director Lalo Perez told a council committee in a report that June that cutting the leaf-blowing enforcement position would "not eliminate the (police) department's response to leaf-blower municipal code violations."
"Enforcement going forward will be handled on a complaint basis by patrol officers, and as such, will be prioritized with other calls-for-service, possibly resulting in longer response times than would a centralized leaf-blower enforcement officer," their report stated.
The council committee agreed to make the cut, though Councilman Greg Scharff observed that it "seems silly to have a municipal statute that we don't enforce, frankly."
The results of the layoff proved more dramatic than anyone could have imagined. After issuing 322 reports about leaf-blowing violations in 2008 and 359 in 2009, the department issued only 63 in 2010, the Police Department data show.
In 2011, the department issued zero formal warnings or citations. In 2012, it issued one. In 2013, zero. In 2014, one. As of June 30 of this year, the number was zero.
The lax enforcement has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, Old Palo Alto resident Sue Kemp wrote to the city complaining that more than half the gardeners she was encountering were back to using gas-powered leaf blowers after initially switching to electric ones.
"It is evident that there is absolutely no enforcement, so the gardeners don't worry about it," Kemp wrote. "I'll bet no one has gotten a ticket this whole past year." (Incidentally, she was correct.)
The response she received from police Capt. Ron Watson didn't entirely satisfy her. He noted that the department had recently lost not only the officer who was focused on leaf blowers but also several other community-service officers who were in the field daily, "handling lower-level calls for service and incident reports." He informed her that complaints about gas-powered leaf blowers were being handled by uniformed police officers.
Watson encouraged Kemp to keep reporting violations, though he also acknowledged that proactive efforts to enforce the ban probably wouldn't be made any time soon.
"With the limited resources we have, I have directed our staff to spend all of their free time concentrating their efforts on school safety and traffic enforcement as well as the continuing residential burglary problem," Watson wrote on Nov. 5, 2012. "With homes getting broken into almost daily, we simply can't devote resources to some of the things we used to be able to do."
Since those days, the city's economy has rebounded in a big way and the era of staff cuts has long passed. No one talks anymore about eliminating traffic enforcement or scrapping school crossing guards. City Hall is now hiring, with 11 new positions budgeted for fiscal year 2016.
Yet enforcement of the leaf-blowing ordinance remains where it was during the bleakest years of the recession. At the council's meeting on June 8, resident Rosenberg told the council about a conversation he had with a police officer who effectively confirmed that the ordinance is not being enforced because of other priorities. On the one hand, Rosenberg said, he is sympathetic to the department's position.
"On the other hand, we do have an ordinance that should be enforced," Rosenberg said.
Lt. Zach Perron, Palo Alto police spokesman, observed that, much of the time, an officer's delay in responding to a complaint (because of its lower priority) means that the alleged scofflaw has already left the property.
Only when an officer is not busy responding to calls about in-progress crimes, alarms, suspicious behavior, burglaries, thefts, traffic collisions and the like, Perron said in an email, will he or she be dispatched to leaf-blower complaints.
When the officer does respond, several things might happen: The operator of the leaf blower could be gone by the time the officer arrives or the operator may have just concluded the leaf blowing and is no longer committing the violation, in which case he or she is informed about the ordinance and asked to comply in the future.
The latter outcome is fairly common, Perron said. Blowing leaves off of a property does not take very long.
Of course, if someone is actually caught in violation of the ordinance, the officer could issue an citation.
Yet the numbers suggest that low prioritization has rendered the ordinance useless. Between 2011 and June 2015, the department has received 665 calls for service relating to leaf blowing (about 166 per year, on average), suggesting that the problem hasn't gone away. During those four years, the city took formal action only twice.
Council members proved sympathetic in June to Rosenberg's complaint, which took place during a meeting about the new fiscal-year budget. Though enforcement of the leaf-blowing ordinance has always fallen to the Police Department, council members cited leaf blowing as a major reason for approving a new code-enforcement position in the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
The new person will be tasked with leading the planning department's three-member team of code-enforcement officers. The hope is to make enforcement proactive, rather than purely complaint-driven, and to turn down the noise on lawns and in gardens throughout the city.
In supporting the position, Councilman Pat Burt argued that the notion of enforcing an ordinance only on a complaint basis is "inconsistent with other elements of our code."
The city, after all, enforces all types of laws, including those dealing with speeding, illegal parking and fire-code violations, to name a few. Unlike leaf blowing, none of these enforcement strategies are based on complaints, he said.
"We don't go after speeders only if someone dials 9-1-1, or have parking-enforcement folks who only operate on complaint," Burt said.
Recent surveys of Palo Alto residents also suggest a general awareness that the city's code-enforcement operation has plenty of room for improvement. Only 62 percent of the respondents to the 2014 National Citizens Survey gave code enforcement a "good" or "excellent rating" (this is an improvement from 2013, when only 57 percent gave code enforcement the two highest marks). In south Palo Alto, the percentage of residents giving the top two ratings to code enforcement in 2014 was even lower: 58 percent.
"It's an area where we think the planning and transportation department can be better," Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said at the June 8 meeting, shortly before the council agreed to add the third code-enforcement position.
With the new position, the planning department will for the first time take part in enforcing the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. Gitelman told the Weekly that once the new person is hired, "We will begin talking about how our code-enforcement group can support the Police Department with the goal of achieving better compliance."
The exact role of the new code enforcer in leaf blowing will not be nailed down until the city hires that person, she said in an email.
"I assume our code-enforcement group will help with education and outreach, and inform the police if they become aware of persistent violators, so the police can take immediate enforcement action," she wrote.
Both Rosenberg and Stan Hutchings have their own ideas for improving leaf-blower compliance. Rosenberg envisions a community-service police officer riding on a bicycle, stopping to chat with gardeners and homeowners and generally being a presence in the neighborhoods.
"He'd have a lot more clout (than I)," said Rosenberg, who nevertheless has managed to convince some of his neighbors and their gardeners to give up gas leaf blowers.
Rosenberg mostly believes that the problem lies with homeowners, who are largely unaware of the ordinance.
"Most homeowners don't know there's a law. That's who I'd ideally like to get to," he said, explaining that he also leaves an FAQ flier on the home's doorstep when he hands one to the gardener.
"I'd hate to have police come down on the gardeners," who are often lower-income, independent contractors, he said.
For his part, Hutchings doesn't think homeowners are unaware, just reluctant to comply. He recommends the city put a flier in people's utilities bills stating that it's illegal to use gas-powered leaf blowers, that they could be fined and that there are pollution dangers associated with the blowers' use.
Violators should also face escalating fines as much as double each prior offense, he said. That would motivate homeowners to speak with their gardeners.
"They don't want to confront the gardener," he said. "They ignore it because they don't know how to talk to their gardener. They'd rather the gardener does what he wants."
The Hutchingses have asked their gardener to use an electric blower and to do so only occasionally on the hard surfaces. In the garden, he uses a rake for the little leaves and hand-picks the big ones, if they even need to be picked up, Hutchings said. (Read "What to know about 'mow and blow'")
Their gardener is charging them the same amount he did when he was using a gas-powered leaf blower, Hutchings said. But even if the rates go up because using electric blowers and raking take longer, Palo Altans can afford the increase, Hutchings believes.
"I don't think they'd be willing, but they'd be able," he said. "An extra $10-$15 that's a couple of lattes."
Sitting on his patio recently as a hummingbird darted to a feeder, Hutchings recalled that the city also recommended another solution when he complained recently: Call 3-1-1 (or use the city's new PaloAlto311 app) to report the offending gardener's truck license plate number and the company name.
"I was told," Hutchings said hopefully, "they would respond."
WHAT THE ORDINANCE SAYS
Palo Alto's law regulating the use of leaf blowers went into effect 10 years ago this summer, on July 1, 2005. Here's what it entails:
Combustion-powered leaf blowers are banned from residential zones
Leaf blowers without a manufacturer's label designating the noise level as 65 dBA or lower when measured from 50 feet away are not allowed
All mufflers and full extension tubes must be attached while blower is in use
Electric leaf blowers can only be used in residential zones from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays
Leaf blowers can only be used in non-residential zones from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays
Commercial leaf-blower operators must display certification of training according to standards adopted by the Chief of Police
Leaf blowers can be used from 4-8 a.m. on public streets, sidewalks and parking lots in business districts; at city parks; and at the Municipal Golf Course
The first-time fine for violating the ordinance: $100
More than hot air: Studies look at leaf blowers' noise, air pollution
What to know about 'mow and blow': Green landscapers urge a return to the rake