As autumn begins and leaves are starting to turn colors and fall in Montgomery County, proposed legislation about a frequently seen and heard landscaping tool – the leaf blower – is stirring debate.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz, on behalf of County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration, introduced a bill earlier this year that would ban the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers or leaf vacuums countywide. The legislation would also direct the head of the Department of Environmental Protection to create a program that would partially reimburse owners of the gas-powered equipment who return their tools to the county as long as they switch to electric leaf blowers and vacuums. The bill doesn’t prescribe how much of a reimbursement would be provided to residents or landscaping companies.
The ban would primarily be enforced by county officials, who could receive complaints by residents via photographic evidence or hear from at least two witnesses who see the violation. The ban on selling gas leaf blowers and vacuums would not occur for six months if the bill becomes law. It would take a year for the use to be banned after the law goes into effect.
Fines would be $500 for a first offense, and $750 for repeat offenses.
County officials, including from the DEP, say the change is needed for two primary reasons — to reduce noise in residential neighborhoods that is emitted by the gas-powered equipment and to prevent the negative environmental impacts of using the machines.
But during last week’s public hearing on the bill, even multiple residents who supported the idea said there should be exceptions to the proposed ban in certain circumstances, such as for golf courses and larger wooded areas of the county. The technology for electric leaf blowers is not quite good enough to cover large areas of land for miscellaneous uses, they said.
Lonnie Luther, president of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau, was more critical. In an interview, he said he hoped that council members “withdraw the bill and throw it in the trash can.” Farmers countywide use gas-powered leaf blowers to clean off grass clippings and debris on their combines and round balers so they don’t catch fire.
“It’s impossible for us to comply with it and we won’t,” Luther, a farmer in Damascus, said of the proposed ban. “We can’t achieve what we need to achieve with electrical units, we have no way to recharge the batteries out in the large fields where we work with our combines and tractors … they’re getting the cart beyond the horse with this.”
Acting DEP Director Adriana Hochberg wrote in a text that the department is “looking forward” to working on the bill with the council’s Transportation & Environment Committee at an upcoming work session. “We believe it’s a solid bill, but we welcome discussion on ways to make it even better,” she wrote.
Some local municipalities have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers in some form. Somerset, a town of about 1,200 near Bethesda, banned them beginning Sept. 1. Chevy Chase Village banned them on Jan. 1 and the town of Chevy Chase banned them as well, except from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31 during permitted hours.
Washington, D.C., also banned gas-powered leaf blowers beginning Jan. 1.
Nine out of ten people who testified during last week’s hearing were supportive of the ban, even if tweaks were needed. Jon Lobenstine, director of agronomy at the Montgomery County Revenue Authority — which oversees the operation of nine public golf courses countywide — said the bill’s supporters have good intentions, but he asked the council to create an exemption for golf courses, as gas-powered leaf blowers often are more effective at cleaning loose soil and serving other needs across large golf courses.
Kevin Sullivan, a county resident, wasn’t opposed to the bill, but said it doesn’t include medical exemptions for people like him who have a pacemaker. It could be dangerous to operate an electric leaf blower due to the electric energy used, he said.
Some residents and organizations were more supportive, including the county’s chapters for The Climate Mobilization and the Sierra Club, who said the ban was needed to reduce the environmental impact of gas-powered leaf blowers.
Fritz Hirst was the only person who completely opposed the ban. He called the legislation “government overreach” and said he had no doubt that gas-powered lawn mowers would be banned next if the council approves the bill.
Albornoz also has questions about the bill. In an interview, he said many landscaping companies that would be impacted were not aware of the legislation before it was introduced.
He wants to know how much the proposed reimbursement program might cost the county, given the number of landscaping companies that operate countywide. And he noted that if those companies are greatly impacted by the ban, they might have to lay off workers — many of whom are immigrants.
Albornoz said he also has heard, as some testified, that landscaping companies in the District are using gas generators to charge their electric leaf blowers, which is still a harm to the environment.
“I want to make sure we have our eyes wide open … .There’s no question these gas leaf blowers are bad for our climate, there’s no question they’re beyond a nuisance, and it’s also true that the landscaping staff members bear the brunt of that noise and the climate pollution aspect of this,” Albornoz said. “But we also have to make sure the technology is there to effectively replace these blowers.”
The bill will be reviewed by the council’s Transportation and Environment committee. A work session has not yet been set.