By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s the issue that won’t be swept away in Sonoma.
Two years after city leaders achieved what they thought was a compromise on the combustible topic of gas-powered leaf blowers, the issue returns Wednesday night to the Sonoma City Council, which could further restrict the noisy devices.
Faced with calls to ban leaf blowers, the council in 2011 unanimously approved new restrictions on their use, including a prohibition on Sundays and during all city-observed holidays. The maximum noise level also was reduced from 90 decibles to 70.
But a group of residents, led by France Street resident Darryl Ponicsan, contend the rules didn’t go far enough, and they are again lobbying the council for an outright ban. The group circulated a petition that as of last week had gathered 58 signatures, including those of 14 people who live outside city limits.
In a December letter to the city, Ponicsan referred to gas-powered leaf blowers as “dust bazookas” and compared those who have a financial stake in their sale and use to the cigarette lobby.
He said a ban won’t drive up costs for professional landscapers and result in layoffs, nor increase the amount of time it takes to remove debris.
“I am 75 years old and not in the best of health, and I have challenged leaf blower operators, telling them that I can rake the leaves into a pile faster than they can blow them. No one has ever taken me up on it,” Ponicsan wrote.
Councilman David Cook, who was not in office when the council approved the new regulations, said he’s “surprised” by the number of complaints he receives about leaf blowers. Cook, who owns a vineyard management company, said his employees don’t use blowers.
Cook and Councilman Steve Barbose asked for the issue to be placed on Wednesday night’s council agenda.
“I just want to open up the discussion and see if we need to do further restrictions,” Cook said. “Do we need to go to a ban?”
Barbose echoed the sentiment, stating in an email that he is “open to re-visiting the issue” given additional information brought forward by constituents.
A city staff report stated that a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers would likely reduce complaints about noise, but would not address concerns about dust, dirt and other particulate matter being blown around, because electric blowers still could be used.
It would cost the city an estimated $10,000 to convert to electric blowers. A ban on gas blowers could also increase maintenance costs related to the city’s contracts for landscape work at half of the city’s 16 parks, as well as at an affordable senior apartment project.
As for concerns about an increased workload, the Public Works Department conducted its own experiment and found that it took one maintenance worker an hour to sweep a 400-foot section of the Fryer Creek bike path, versus six minutes for a 300-foot section using a blower.
The department considers gas-powered leaf blowers “of great importance” to remove trip-and-fall hazards following “wind events” at the city’s Plaza, the report stated.
Of the 157 noise-related complaints taken by the city’s Police Department from January 2012 to July 2013, 16 were related to the use of leaf blowers, Police Chief Bret Sackett reported. There have been no citations.
The city’s current rules restrict the use of leaf blowers in residential areas to between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and in city parks on the same days between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.
When the City Council tightened the rules in 2011, it directed staff to prepare an ordinance making it illegal to operate a leaf blower in a manner that directs dust and debris to a neighboring property. However, the ordinance was never drafted.
Planning Director David Goodison said last week that the council’s direction to staff was “noted in passing” and that the work essentially was shelved after Public Works Director Milenka Bates left the city for another job.
“When she left, no one picked it up,” Goodison said.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.