June 7, 2017

Quieting Noisy Leaf Blowers Is the Goal of Local Activists

For years, Hawthorne Lane residents Phyllis Teitelbaum and Anthony Lunn were bothered by the roar of leaf blowers — even those grooming lawns at the other end of the street. It wasn’t just the din that they found troubling. The smell from the gas-powered engines was equally concerning.

“There is noise pollution and air pollution, and it is hundreds of times more than what is put out by cars,” Ms. Teitelbaum said. “We knew we had to do something.”

From reading letters to the editor in local publications, the couple knew that others in Princeton shared similar sentiments. They contacted each of the letter-writers, and gathered for a first meeting in January 2016. That marked the birth of Quiet Princeton, the goal of which is “to improve the quality of life in our town and to restore and enhance its peaceful and harmonious character, by removing and controlling sources of noise in the environment,” according to quietprinceton.org.

First on the agenda was a discussion about getting an ordinance to ban leaf blowers. Princeton’s current ordinance limits use of the blowers to certain hours, and does not require the measurement of decibel levels. Toughening the ordinance had been tried before, and voted down by Council.

Instead, the group decided on a strategy they call “win-win”: Urging homeowners to either do the work themselves using methods such as raking or mulching mowers, or asking hired landscapers to forego leaf blowers. The group approached 40 Princeton area landscapers, and came up with a list of 11 who were willing to do the work without using blowers, if asked.

Among them was Lawrence Landscaping. “I don’t have any clients who have requested this, and that’s because it costs more money,” said Senior Manager Nancy Angle. “It’s all labor driven.” Princeton landscaper Robert Solano, another willing to work without blowers, said in an email, “The biggest problem is that it would easily triple the cost due to extensive manual labor and the amount of people needed to do it. I have had a couple of calls, but when you explain to them the amount of labor and cost, it doesn’t go anywhere. So at the end of the day, we are stuck with the leaf blowers due to the amount of vegetation and trees that make this town so beautiful.”

Aware of the cost issue, Quiet Princeton recommends that residents sit down with landscapers and taking a “less is more” approach to how much clearing of leaves and grass needs to be done. “When leaf blowers are used, too much is removed. We call it the ‘scorched earth’ policy,” Ms. Teitelbaum said. “You want to avoid that because it ends up hurting the topsoil, the birds, and the garden. With the landscaper, you might be able to agree on a more moderate amount of work, and that way negotiate a price that you’re comfortable with. It might even end up being less.”

Some 20 people from different areas of town are part of Quiet Princeton. Another part of the group’s strategy is to communicate with fellow residents and introduce them to the idea of quiet landscaping. “A lot of people have reported success in this. We’ve had success on our own street,” Ms. Teitelbaum said. “This will continue to be our focus for the near future.”

The group has researched websites from similar groups in other states. Through an organization called Quiet Communities, they keep abreast of activities across the country. Maplewood is one town that has eliminated the use of leaf blowers during summer months. Several areas on Long Island are following the example set by California to ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

“We are keen to see our town of Princeton become an enlightened leader in this movement,” Ms. Teitelbaum and Mr. Lunn wrote in an email. “Many groups will benefit: the municipality from costs of leaf haulage and health harm to its employees; residents from imposition of high noise levels and from health consequences of serious air pollution; landscaping employees from the health harm; ecologists espousing sustainability; and universities and other institutions from serving as models for a sustainable future by changing their practices.”

Quiet Princeton plans to hold another meeting in a few months to talk about future strategies. But trying to change the town’s noise ordinance isn’t likely to be one of them. “We have always felt that getting an ordinance through Council is not the best way to go,” Ms. Teitelbaum said. “We would have to get a sense that there is support on Council for a stronger ordinance before we would put a lot of time into that. We might just stick with our ‘win-win.’”