News

Gas-powered leaf blowers banned in Portola Valley

Town Council action includes a two-year delay to phase in new regulations.

Town Hall in Portola Valley owns a gasoline-powered leaf blower for use in emergencies, such as when a tree falls across a road and spreads debris all over the place. But for ordinary leaf-blowing chores, staffers use an electricity-powered blower – and in two years, so will just about everyone who wants to blow leaves in town and not run afoul of the law.

At its meeting Wednesday, Jan. 9, the Town Council voted 4-0, with Councilman Jeff Aalfs absent, to amend an existing noise ordinance to ban the use of gasoline-powered blowers. The council agreed to a two-year delay before the regulations go into effect to allow gardeners and homeowners to replace their equipment.

The Bay Area Gardeners Association could not immediately be reached for comment.

The use of gas-powered blowers may be authorized by Town Hall in the case of emergencies, and staff is reviewing the idea of allowing them for homeowners who live along creeks and have responsibilities to prevent flooding. Debris problems along creeks can be unusually difficult, according to accounts from residents who live near creeks and who spoke against the ban at the council meeting.

The switch to electric blowers can be costly. Whereas a typical gasoline-powered blower costs between $400 and $600, an electric blower with all its associated equipment currently costs $1,900, Public Works Director Howard Young told the council. Some jobs will require gardeners to carry a spare battery, available currently for another $850, Young said.

The ordinance also bans use of electricity-powered blowers on soil and other "softscapes." Leaf blowers kick up fugitive dust – a term the California Air Resources Board defines as particulate matter that is not a side effect of fuel combustion. Vehicles create fugitive dust simply by moving down a road, either paved or unpaved, and if particulate matter is not already on the road, leaf blowers will move it there, the board says in a 2007 report.

Particulate matter, according to a town staff report and a 2012 report from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is "by far ... the greatest harm to public health in the Bay Area." The air resources board report notes that outdoor sources of particulate matter include wildfires and indoor sources include stoves, heaters, and fireplaces. Particles "can penetrate deep into the body to damage the lungs, heart, circulatory system, and even the DNA in cells," the report says.

The town notes that dust from a leaf blower travels at speeds comparable to hurricane-force winds; that blowers' two-stroke engines can generate greenhouse gas emissions, over one hour, equivalent to a car trip from Los Angeles to Denver; and that the engines can produce noise of up to 112 decibels, equivalent to a car horn heard at 3 feet away.

With this decision, Portola Valley joins 19 other communities in California, including Berkeley, Los Altos, Palo Alto, Carmel, Mill Valley and Malibu, according to a staff report. Five California communities ban all blowers, including those powered by electricity, and 59 restrict blower use to particular times of day, the report says.

Not a consensus

Town Hall received 43 messages from residents before the council meeting, with 16 opposed to the proposed ban and 17 in favor, Town Manager Jeremy Dennis told the council. Opinion among people who attended the meeting was also divided.

Resident Joe Coleman, who said he plays the piano at home, likened the noise of gas-powered blowers to the disharmony created when striking adjacent black keys on the piano at the same time.

Resident Belinda Brent asked the council to consider exceptions to the ban for people who live along creeks, as did resident Kathy Feldman.

Resident Danna Breen, a longtime advocate of a ban, complained of the potential of breathing in fecal matter from rats and ground squirrels that is made airborne by leaf blowers. As for the noise, she said it drives her to confine herself inside her home for hours at a time. "I don't want to live in a town where I have to wear a mask and earplugs," she said.

Resident David Beaver said he has no problem with the environmental motivations behind the ban, but he objects to people who are passionate about an issue and "know how to pull the levers of power ... and basically force the rest of the town to live our lives the way they think we should live our lives."

Town opinion is not at a consensus, he said, and the council should wait and see before approving a ban.

Resident Jon Silver, a former Portola Valley mayor and a former county planning commissioner who favors the ban, spoke twice, the first time to note how residents in the past managed to live enjoyable lives despite the fact that they didn't have the benefit of leaf blowers.

Silver returned to the microphone to respond to Beaver. "One has a right to influence one's government by winning elections, especially when it's done through democratic process without the effect of money or anything other than winning the argument," he said. "That's what we should care about, and I find it insulting (to allege) that our town is governed by anything else."

A climate crisis

Before voting to approve the ordinance, council members spoke favorably of the ban as a way to address noise impacts for people who work from home, as a way to slow soil damage since education efforts have not seemed to work, and as a way to address climate change.

"That one is huge," Councilman John Richards said in reference to eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered blowers. "I think we are absolutely in a crisis."

Councilman Craig Hughes called climate change "the biggest thing that is probably going to impact the most people. ... The more we can pick off low-hanging fruit, especially when there are viable alternatives, we should take every opportunity to do that. Fuel-shifting – transitioning to electric power from fossil fuel – is an easy way to do that."

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Comments

24 people like this
Posted by menlo parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm

menlo parent is a registered user.

Thank you. Now if only Menlo Park would follow suit


11 people like this
Posted by Los Altan
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2019 at 12:33 pm

Congratulations to the Portola Valley City Council for voting on this important ban! As mentioned in the article, PV joins several other nearby communities in banning these horrible devices. Let's hope that the ban is enforced properly, as often this is not the case.

My wife and I have been trying on our own to get local gardeners to stop using gas powered leaf blowers, and it is an uphill battle. Greentown Los Altos is meeting later this month to discuss further steps we can do to eliminate gas leaf blowers.


38 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 11, 2019 at 12:33 pm

Brian is a registered user.

So here is what will happen. All the gardeners will be forced to buy electric leaf blowers but since the batteries will not last long enough to complete all their daily work they will buy gas powered generators to put in the back of their trucks. They will fire up the generators to charge the batteries which will probably increase the amount of pollution and noise, not to mention making people who are probably not earning a lot of money go out and buy all new equipment.


57 people like this
Posted by Disappointed
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 11, 2019 at 12:58 pm

I am deeply disappointed that the town council has chosen to dictate to town residents what products we can use and how we can use them. I am not a fan of gas-powered leaf blowers but this is just the tip of the iceberg if the town council intends to solve all of the worlds problems by telling residents what products they can and can't use. The town council has no right to intrude into the lives of residents at this level of detail. We can make informed decisions for ourselves.


10 people like this
Posted by Ted
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Seems our gardeners could mitigate the cost of new equipment by a one-time charge that would be shared among their clients.


17 people like this
Posted by Patsy
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Sorry, but when it comes to matters of citizen health and safety, which our environment affects directly and indirectly, local, state, and federal governments not only have a right to "dictate," but a responsibility.


25 people like this
Posted by Willowbrook
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 1:37 pm

Mr. Beaver is right when he says that some residents "know how to pull the levers of power ... and basically force the rest of the town to live our lives the way they think we should live our lives." I remember one PV town meeting a decade or two back where a permit was not granted for a solar panel because someone on the planning commission thought it would be too shiny. Two of our neighbors, as part of the terms for remodeling their houses, had to cover up one end of their pull-through driveways "because we want get away from that kind of thing." In the newer of those remodels, the new garage door couldn't face the street, again "because we want get away from that kind of thing." The poor people have to make a seven-point turn to get their cars into the garage, or just not use it at all. Ridiculous.


34 people like this
Posted by David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Patsy, how does the "citizen health and safety" argument justify laws dictating which parts of our yard we can, and can't, clean with leaf blowers? (See paragraph 6 in the article above).


46 people like this
Posted by Not quite yet...
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 2:56 pm

On one hand I think it was wise to put a stake in the ground and give residents a 2 year time frame to phase out gas powered blowers, on the other (and after a lot of thought) I'm not sure even this will work. After a quick talk with my gardener, he said that if the ban were today they would simply drop their Portola Valley customers. He went on to say that the big guys will happily gear up and also up their fees substantially to do the work with battery powered blowers. What might happen in 2 years if costs have not come down (and capability hasn't gone up)? A whole lot of residents will be looking for new gardeners and paying a whole lot more for the ones willing to use electric blowers (and/or rakes/brooms). He also voiced concern that the blowers and batteries will be prime target for theft given their cost.

My earlier comment about affordable housing goals also comes to mind. It seems that the council isn't quite following their published priorities here. Residents might take note that costs to live in Portola Valley are SKYROCKETING! Measure Z, renewal of the utility tax and now this (all on top of the cost of real estate and sales/income taxes). Logic seems to dictate that you can't have affordable housing under the burden of all these fees. Now add a larger landscaping service bill.

A couple of things to think about:
1. Evaluate progress of cost vs performance of electric blowers in a year
2. Give waivers for lots above 2 acres (or maybe 1 acre?)
3. Give waivers for lots along creek beds
4. Give waivers in time of increased fire danger
5. Give an additional year or two for 4-stroke gas blowers

Also thinking about other comments that the town council may have over stepped their authority. Well, legally I'm not sure, but it seems reasonable that the question will be asked. A brief look at the makeup of the council shows 5 residents that have been involved in the council one way or another for years. Might indicate that the council is not representing the whole of the community. Perhaps term limits might be in order?

Finally, how will this ordinance be enforced? I can just see one neighbor calling the sheriff on another because a gardener was trying to do his job. Good Grief.


17 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 3:32 pm

YES!!! I own an electric leaf blower (plug in, and I use extension cords as needed, just like when I weed whack) and it didn’t cost anywhere close to $400. So there’s that. You don’t actually have to invest in a battery pack.

Secondly, yes, I DO believe the town should dictate how we clean our property re: leafblowers, just as they dictate other things that involve quality of life for neighbors, and not just ourselves. There is no need for gas powered leaf blowers; a better alternative exists. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind having leaf blowers banned completely. They are loud, blow everything everywhere, and are bad for both the soul and the environment. PV is a small town, our environment and health is at risk, and we cannot expect to live in a vacuum. If certain gardeners decide to drop their PV clients, I am very sure that there are other gardeners will be more than happy to pick up that business. Capitalism at work.


18 people like this
Posted by local
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2019 at 3:57 pm

Have any of the gardners heard of a rake or broom & dustpan? Has worked for many years before the leafblower was invented


8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jan 11, 2019 at 4:09 pm

I am sure the gardeners have heard of rakes and brooms and even horse drawn carriages!


10 people like this
Posted by Allen Moench
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jan 11, 2019 at 5:08 pm

Allen Moench is a registered user.

Bravo Portola Valley ! Next, let's make the ban apply county wide.


9 people like this
Posted by The Gardener
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jan 11, 2019 at 7:13 pm


I understand the health concerns regarding dust and emissions, but the noise argument doesn't really hold up in reality. Many gas powered blowers have decibel ratings only slightly higher than comparable electric models, and some of the most powerful electric blowers are actually rated louder than a comparable gas model--Jonesered electric backpack rated at 95db while comparable STIHL BR600 rated at 75 db. The most powerful EGO brand handheld electric blower is rated at 65db while comparable gas models offered by STIHL are rated at 70db. Yes 65 is less than 70 but it is not a huge difference.
Yes I am a landscaper and I find both gas and electric blowers to sound horrid. Maybe someday people will be happy to pay me to sweep or we can all just live with dusty hardscape and leaves in the mulch--oh the horror!!


13 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 12, 2019 at 10:11 am

Brian is a registered user.

The bottom line is that one way or another this is going to cost homeowners that have gardeners a lot more money, if they can keep or find gardeners willing to work in Portola Valley. As for other comments above, most people probably don't have exterior outlets for gardeners to use for Plug in blower, maybe they can provide power to get a lower rate but somehow I doubt that will be the case.

Yes, a rake a broom work great and take about 5 times as long. If you don't mind paying 5 times more for the clean up or having your gardeners, who are not millionaires, make a lot less money (which they won't agree to anyway) go ahead and suggest that.


1 person likes this
Posted by patrick
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2019 at 8:48 pm

I think the author/researcher for this article should be fired.

Electric blowers can cost less than $60 at Home Dept. No doubt a gold plated one for Portola might cost a grand, but I doubt it.

Seriously the author should apologise for being an idiot and just making stuff up

Talk about fake news!


20 people like this
Posted by Fan of David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 13, 2019 at 10:27 pm

David Beaver raises a great point. Our town is disproportionally directed by the notions and preferences of a select few citizens who know how to influence and manipulate the process. This article correctly highlights Jon Silver and Danna Breen in this regard.

There's no greater example than the Woodside Priory turf field, which passed all the proper town hurdles (at great expense), then at the eleventh hour, a single citizen launched a campaign against it, convincing the Town Council to reverse the decision and "go with their gut" instead of relying on the considered, thorough process put in place. It was a sham and a complete waste of time and money. I walked away from that meeting thinking the town should do the honest thing and require builders to submit all such plans to Jon/Danna beforehand to save everyone the effort.

But let's not re-litigate that. It's not about Jon. Jon & Danna are right and entitled and admirable for being active, engaged and persuasive. This isn't a criticism of them. A lot of what's great about PV is due to them and others who are as similarly active.

Who I fully fault is the Town Council and other bodies, who owe a duty to ALL residents, not just those who are retired or without kids at home or second jobs or volunteer work or health issues or for other reason's CAN'T be as active. When you're elected/appointed to the these bodies, you owe it to ALL of us, not just those who you agree with or who attend the meetings or even who are most verbally compelling. Us dumb/busy/inarticulate folks should count as much as those more gifted and committed. I know democracy rewards the involved, but there's a downside to that notion which is your duty to mitigate.

So please - with humility - understand that Danna, Jon and David can all be right. But the fact that you have a unanimous decision on a controversial issue (that the public is deeply split on) is a sign that something's wrong about your composition or your process or both.


5 people like this
Posted by L. Inman
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 14, 2019 at 9:07 am

Excellent! I'd like to move to your town. I can't work from home because of all the noise from leaf blowers in Atlanta, Georgia. The fumes from leaf blowers are horrible as well. Good job!


6 people like this
Posted by Bill Wall
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 14, 2019 at 10:02 am

How about a rake and a broom? Stop blowing dust around around neighborhood.!


4 people like this
Posted by David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 14, 2019 at 12:27 pm

Patrick: yes you can buy a plug in blower for $60. But gardeners can't be tied to a cord. So they need battery powered blowers that are powerful enough to do the job. So they buy a big backpack of batteries, which are expensive. And those still only last 30 min and take hours to charge, so they need 3 or 4 battery packs in their truck


1 person likes this
Posted by Brad
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2019 at 3:37 pm

Omg its sooo loud... for 10min and then im gone and the dust settles and the yard is done. Give me a break i'm so glad people have brains where i live.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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