Leaf blower debate could spark fines in Burlingame, San Mateo

Of all the competing concerns San Mateo residents aired with David Lim as he was campaigning for city council, an unexpected front-runner emerged: leaf blowers.

Residents complained that the machines are noisy, spew harmful pollution and are often heard early in the morning — despite city rules against using them before 8 a.m. on weekdays.

“I’d say probably five-to-one, just in an informal ranking of people I met door-to-door, this is the issue people said, ‘Can you do something about it?’” said Lim, who was elected in 2009.

In the past month, San Mateo and Burlingame have revved up the debate over the gardener’s tool as they consider increasing restrictions or possibly banning the blowers.

Officials in both cities say they want to proceed cautiously to ensure they understand what other equipment is available and how cracking down could impact residents and gardeners.

“You don’t want to ban something and then you don’t have something that can be utilized as the alternative that is feasible,” Burlingame Vice Mayor Ann Keighran said.

A group of Burlingame residents recently asked the city council to ban both gas-powered and electric leaf blowers as part of a 39-page report on the subject.

The Citizens Environmental Council argues that the carbon emissions and particulates released by leaf blowers pose health hazards for residents and the workers carrying the devices. An initial proposal includes fines for those caught using the machines ranging from $100 to $1,000.

Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said the discussions are still in a “very preliminary stage.” The council directed the group to return with a more specific proposal.

Leaf blower regulations vary widely, though it appears no San Mateo County cities have outright bans. Burlingame and Menlo Park both require the machines’ high-pitched whine to be below 65 decibels, and Palo Alto and Los Altos ban gas-powered blowers entirely.

San Mateo’s council is considering revising its 1997 blower ordinance, which lists hours of operation but does not assign enforcement responsibility, though no specific proposals have been revealed.

Jose Henriquez, the owner of JDH Garden Services, said he often does gardening work in San Mateo and uses gas-powered leaf blowers on jobs.

He said eliminating gas-powered blowers would make jobs take longer and drive up costs for customers. Electric blowers are inconvenient because they have to be plugged in and manual tools are even more work, he said.

“For everybody it’s more difficult, for the [property] owner and for the gardener,” Henriquez said.

Lim says he’s not interested in putting gardeners out of business. He said the city could offer incentives for gardeners to phase out gas leaf blowers, such as a rebate on their permit fees for switching to electric.

“I think it could be a win-win situation for our whole city if we do it diligently and take the time to communicate with everyone,” Lim said.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

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361 Leaf blower complaints received in San Mateo from 2000 to 2010

48 Complaints in 2001, a high in the past decade

16 Complaints in 2004, a low in the past decade

28 Complaints last year

Source: City of San Mateo

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