SUMMIT, NJ — Nearly 60 years ago, Bob Dylan wrote and sang that “The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind” but, in Summit, for at least three months this summer, that answer — or anything else for that matter — won't be propelled by gas-powered leaf blowers.
That's because the Summit Common Council, at its April 6 meeting that ran for just under four hours, adopted a Capital Projects & Community Services ordinance amending noise prohibitions and creating a pilot program to ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in the City for three months this summer.
In introducing the ordinance, Council Member at Large Beth Little said concern about at the problem of noise and air pollution from gas-powered leaf blowers has existed since at least 2017. The city last year successfully introduced electric blowers to its DPW work force.
Requests for council action sharply increased in the spring of 2020, when most residents were confined to their homes by COVID restrictions. An ad hoc committee was formed and its research included looking at how other towns’ solutions and gathering feedback from landscaping companies.
The committee comprises Little, Ward One Council Member David Naidu, DCS Director Aaron Schrager, two residents, and two local landscapers. Little admitted it was not meant to be a representative sample, but a working committee. The committee ultimately proposed a pilot ban from June 1 to Aug. 31, a time when landscapers told them the equipment is the least necessary. The impact will be evaluated before determining what the next steps might be.
Little added that at the next Council meeting, an amendment providing for hardship exemptions will be introduced. She also explained that penalties for those violating the ban will be more educational than punitive — initially a warning, then a fine for subsequent violations.
Leaf blowers have generated more public engagement than any other problem in town, even in a year that brought a pandemic, civil unrest, and marijuana legalization, said Little.
She summarized the main points made in the 88 emails that had been received supporting the ordinance, the 75 opposed, and three neutral ones. Of those for it, a dozen writers asked council to go even further. Many writers cited the impact of noise and air pollution on their families. Others expressed concern for the health of the workers. Among those opposed, writers cited lost jobs, costs, and the impact on businesses. All emails were shared with the council and Mayor Nora Radest.
Little read an email received that day from the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, a lobbying group, applauding Summit for its “reasonable and equitable” proposal, calling it “sensible and fair,” although disagreeing that the problem is a major one.
It especially approved the decision to apply the ban to all users, not just professional landscaping firms. Recognizing that the ban will affect residents who do their own yard work, Little noted that bans which apply only to professional users are being challenged in court as discriminatory.
She also denied that this was the start of a slippery slope, and that the “tremendous amount” of pollution produced by this equipment is unique, as is the penetrating, low-frequency, 85-decibel noise produced.
Opening the hearing to public comment, Fox emphasized that she would strictly enforce the three-minute limit on speakers, and that Council would not engage in a back-and-forth with those commenting. Rather, questions would be answered at the end of the hearing.
Donna Patel, Beekman Road, is the chair of the Summit Environmental Commission. The commission supports the ban, as “the two-stroke engine prevalent in gas-powered leaf blowers is inefficient and allows carcinogenic gases and fumes to escape from the engine. These include carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbons, which contribute to smog and acid rain.” Further, the rate of pollutant emissions exceeds those of automobiles, she said. The blowers also erode compact, and dry out soil; harm plants, microorganisms, and pollinators, and kick up clouds of pollutants and contaminants, impacting air quality.
Jennifer Millar, Fernwood Road, does not support the ban. Given that it is a “widely concerning issue,” she feels it should be voted on by the residents.
Steven Spurr, Woodland Avenue, called the proposal “not without its merits,” but had concerns about its abrupt implementation and associated costs for those affected by it; the lack of a clear enforcement procedure, citing the ongoing Bristol Meyers Squibb noise problems; and that there seems to be no clear or objective measure of success.
Henry Bassman, Hartley Road, spoke in favor of the ban. He said he’d gone for a walk the day before at 5:45 p.m., and two blowers were operating six houses away. His phone has a decibel meter, and it registered 75 dB in his driveway. On the street next to the property where the equipment was in use, the sound level was 100 dB, well above the 85dB level that causes hearing damage. He favors making the ban permanent.
John Delano, Summit Avenue, pointed out that the world is filled with things that make noise, including construction equipment, but that the City was unlikely to be banning those items. He suggested this measure seemed “arbitrary,” and said, “I don’t believe that the City of Summit needs to be driven by decisions in other communities, but should be driven by what is best for the City of Summit and what is best for its citizens.”
Rajendra Marathe, Harrison Court, supports the ban for its health benefits that will accrue to the “voiceless” workers even more than to residents.
Dennis Allocco, Stockton Road, asked how many complaints had been received by the City over the past several years, why the ad hoc committee was so much smaller than that working on the Transfer Station land use, and whether the landscapers on the committee serve the City.
Anna Fredette, Morris Avenue, is a landscaper’s daughter who opposes the ordinance. She asked how one would lodge a complaint against a neighbor, how that would be enforced, and whether that would divide the community. She also asked if the contractors who do City landscape work are using electric blowers. Finally, Fredette mentioned the other businesses which will be impacted by the ban, including gutter cleaners, power washers, and construction workers.
Dorrie Gagnon, Bedford Road, opposes the ban because it doesn’t make a distinction between two-stroke and four-stroke engines. Four-strokes do not burn oil and cause less pollution that two-strokes.
Marcus McNamara, Irving Place, feels there needs to be more community input before action is taken. Being bilingual, he volunteered to speak directly to the Spanish-speaking landscape workers. He did say that following the issue has caused him to become “more interested in City government than ever before.”
Carol Pak-Teng, Summit Avenue, trusts that the Council has “considered the research and done due diligence.” She looks forward to seeing what the data from the pilot will show and how “we can move forward to make Summit a nicer-sounding place, a cleaner place, a healthier place for all of our citizens. I think that is the point of all of this.”
Dale Reyer, Stacie Court, strongly supports the proposed ban, noting that just because enforcement may be difficult and people may sometimes “get away” with violations is no reason not to have an ordinance.
In all, 24 residents spoke on the issue, 11 for and 10 against, three with questions or neutral. Additionally, Nicole Sarna, deputy City clerk, read into the record the names of the more than 158 people who had sent emails regarding the measure and who did not speak during the meeting.
With public comments closed, Little reminded the audience that they elect representatives and entrust them to make decisions on their behalf. “We do our homework... Every decision we make is a balance.” Addressing questions that had been raised, she said that ad hoc committees come and go; none are deliberative. Neither landscaper on the committee wanted a ban, but provided input on ways to minimize impact on their business.
Regarding enforcement, complaints can be handled by either the police or code enforcement officers, contacted via a call to the non-emergency police number or Community Services or by the See/Click/Fix app. No additional manpower will need to be hired. She noted that relying strictly on the existing noise ordinance would make enforcement a more drawn-out process, involving both the city Board of Health and the police, and would effectively result in a year-round ban on gas leaf blowers.
The pilot program’s success will be measured by evaluating public comments and engagement with landscapers and businesses. If Council decides to extend the ban, it will do so through the same process as the pilot, with public hearings and an ordinance.
The pilot will cover City workers and contractors. Little said there will be ample communication with the public before June 1. Nevertheless, users can apply for a hardship exemption.
Naidu made an analogy to illustrate how the Council balances community concerns and potential benefits. In 2016, when the idea of parklets was introduced as a pilot program, there was a lot of community opposition to removing parking spaces. But the Council made the decision to go forward, and “because we did that, we were able when we needed to now have the infrastructure, the knowledge, the ability” to quickly roll out parklets to help local restaurants in the midst of the pandemic. He also noted an all-year ban “is not on the table.” Finally, he applauded the respectful discussion at tonight’s meeting, contrasting it to that which has been taking place on social media. “An effective community is people compromising.”
Radest, who has been mostly quiet on the topic, thinks the pilot is a good idea, but has concerns about the timing. She admitted she’s been unable to look at anything during the past 13 months except through “the lens of the pandemic.” But she said the hardship exemption will allay those concerns.
In response, Little said that even though people started becoming more vocal about the issue in the spring of 2020, it didn’t seem prudent to launch a pilot in the midst of the pandemic. But because so many people are still working or studying from home, it wouldn’t be fair to postpone providing relief to them until 2022.
Ward One Council Member Susan Hairston expressed surprise that there was anyone “who didn’t hate the sound of leaf blowers.” From the public health standpoint, she called implementing the ban a “no-brainer.” She emphasized that enforcement will be focused on educating users, and that it will be the owners, not the workers, who will be on notice that they have to be looking out for their workers’ wellbeing.
Danny O’Sullivan, Ward One Council Member, restated the consensus that gas blowers are noisy and dirty machines adding that they create an “overlap of noise” that can be heard for several hours a day throughout the year. He professed being for small businesses, for landscapers, for cleaner air, and for a quieter community. “All of these things can exist this summer… A three-month pause on gas-powered leaf blowers is a reasonable sacrifice for a quieter and cleaner community… I think we have found the right balance for Summit.”
Lisa Allen, Ward Two Council Member, noted that she came into the hearing with an open mind. In the time between arriving home from work and the start of the meeting, she was subjected to the sound of a leaf blower, leading her to think, “The universe is telling me something.”
She’s spoken to numerous friends and neighbors, and reached out to landscaping companies on this “complicated issue,” and described neighbors worried about not being able to use their blowers in their own yards on weekends, as well as her own concerns about enforcement and neighbors turning on neighbors during a time when people have had so little interaction.
Ward Two Council Member Greg Vartan called the blowers “horrible” and “incredibly annoying.” He feels government has the responsibility to act on the issue, asking, “if we don’t do something about it, who will?” He pointed out that Council implements restrictions like this “all the time,” giving as examples rules on how fast people can drive, how houses and storefronts should look, and the types of containers you can use to sell coffee. “The only way to find out if this makes a meaningful impact is to try it,” and afterwards to have a “robust conversation” on the results, he said, adding that at that time there will also be a better understating of what a post-pandemic Summit will look like.
Regarding enforcement, Police Chief Andrew Bartolotti said he and Schrager had meetings set up with their respective staffs to discuss enforcement if the ordinance passed. The DCS would handle calls that come into their office during business hours while the Police will respond to calls coming through dispatch or the non-emergency number, subject to Police involvement on more urgent matters. The two organizations will coordinate to monitor warnings issued. Schrager added that DCS will maintain a database to track those warnings.
Little anticipated that the City’s communications would educate residents and that most residents and businesses would comply. When there was a violation, she anticipated most complaints would be handled on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis.
Fox closed the discussion by noting that technology had advanced to a point where electric leaf blowers were practical, and that similar bans in other communities had not hurt the landscaping businesses or their clients.
The ordinance passed with a sole “nay” vote from Allen.
Watch the discussion below from 41:45 to 3:07:00.