The Princeton Council voted unanimously on Monday night to approve an ordinance almost a year in the making that allows gas leaf blowers to be used at certain times during peak yard clean-up seasons in the fall and spring, and bans them other times of the year. The ordinance, which has different clauses for various pieces of equipment, also sets hours for when gas, electric, and battery-powered lawn care equipment, including lawnmowers, can be used. The ordinance was created to cut down on noise and improve the environment.
Gas-powered leaf blowers and other gas lawn equipment can be used from March 15 to May 15 and from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15 each year, except on Sundays and on Thanksgiving. Gas-powered leaf blowers can be used from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays during the two annual peak use periods.
Power lawnmowers, electric or battery-powered leaf blowers, and other electric or battery-powered lawn equipment such as chain saws and hedge trimmers are allowed to be used year-round from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and certain holidays. The only exception regarding chainsaw use after hours is when a chainsaw is used in response to an emergency, for example, a storm.
The use of other gas-powered equipment such as blowers, power fans, internal combustion engines, including chainsaws, snowblowers, and portable generators is banned on Sundays, New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The equipment can be used from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Snow blowers can be used other hours in the event of a storm, and power generators can be used during power outages caused by a natural disaster.
Buses, trucks, and tractors are not allowed to be warmed up near homes between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and vehicles and motorcycles are not allowed to “unnecessarily” and repeatedly idle, accelerate, start, or stop from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Any outdoor concert requires a permit from the municipal administrator.
A repeat violator of the ordinance will face fines. The grace period after the enactment of the ordinance is 90 days. Two written warning notices will be issued during the grace period before fines are levied. After the grace period, one written warning notice will be issued.
A sustainable landscaping committee met for about 10 months to come up with the recommendations. The town will spend $10,000 next year for ads and materials to be distributed to landscapers so they are aware of the new rules, Councilwoman Eve Niedergang said.
Molly Jones of Sustainable Princeton said the organization hopes to raise $35,000 to buy some battery-powered leaf blowers for landscapers who can’t afford them. The citizen group Quiet Princeton that lobbied for the new ordinance has agreed to contribute $2,500 to the fund. Some residents suggested that Sustainable Princeton use money given to the organization to fund a gas-powered equipment buyback program to encourage people to use battery or electric-powered equipment.
Tammy Sands of the Princeton Environmental Commission said the ordinance is not just about gas leaf blowers or a one-to-one replacement of gas-powered equipment with electric or battery-powered tools. “The council’s endorsement will establish Princeton as a modern, progressive town that tackles local policy with enhanced approaches, inclusive to all, and I will include Mother Earth in this, as we strive for an equally just sustainable community, as a first step in the transition to sustainable landscaping.”
Karen Zemble of the environmental commission said the ordinance is a great first step in protecting the health and safety of workers by regulating the use of gas-powered equipment. She said in the future she will advocate for a more comprehensive sustainable landscaping ordinance, including stronger rules regarding the regulation of gas leaf blowers and other gas-powered equipment, as well as rules regarding pesticides.
Resident Ximena Skovron said during public comment that she doesn’t feel the ordinance goes far enough. “I support a complete ban on gas-powered landscaping equipment with a reasonable phase-out period. I am one of many residents in the Riverside neighborhood who have expressed concern regarding the toxicity of fumes, and the excessive noise of gas-powered leaf blowers and other lawn equipment,” she said. “While some of us do our own landscaping with manual or battery-operated mowers and our own composting, we cannot avoid the fumes and noise coming from other properties that make it unpleasant and even hazardous to take a walk or sit on our front porch to linger on a corner chatting with a neighbor or attending to a child in a stroller.”
Skovron said the noise interferes with the enjoyment of residents’ yards. “My two-year-old was routinely startled out of sleep when the landscapers across the street arrived with their fleet unloaded and started them all up simultaneously to work on several properties at once. They still do that four years later, and we still, every time, whether outside our house or in it, feel an immediate physical and mental disturbance in whatever we are doing, Skovron said. “Our quality of life is further impacted by the fact that there is no escaping the noise and toxic fumes even in so-called open spaces. I feel that it is nonsensical that the quality of all of our lives and our health is being compromised for what is in effect an aesthetic concern.”
Some people noted that homeowners should realize that their costs for lawn care could go up because of the changes.
Resident John Heilner, who served on a subcommittee that looked at the issue of equity and landscape workers, said the subcommittee had to balance improving the environment with not placing too heavy a burden on landscaping company owners and workers. Most of the landscaping companies that operate in Princeton are small and are owned and operated by people of color, primarily Latinos, Heilner said. “Their workers are almost all Latino. And they will benefit from the environmental improvements, but they certainly will not benefit if their companies go out of business. So we’ve really sought to achieve a careful balance here,” he said.
“The financial burden on the on the small companies may not seem extreme, but when you operate at tiny margins, it is very significant. First, there is a capital cost of purchasing one or two battery-operated leaf blowers, and at least one spare battery pack for use in the seven and a half months per year that they will be required by many, many property owners,” Heilner said. “Second, for those property owners that do want at least minimal cleanup of grass clippings and leaves off their driveways, patios, and lots, even if not the lawn after mowing, there is also an increased labor cost because it takes longer to do this with battery versus gas-powered equipment.”
Eunice Wong, a co-organizer of Quiet Princeton, said she strongly supported the ordinance, but there is a very strong desire for a year-round ban on gas leaf blowers. “We need a paradigm shift in landscaping, and Princeton has started to try to educate its people and its landscapers about this paradigm shift,” she said. “Once we make that paradigm shift, gas leaf blowers will become obsolete. And a year-round ban will not be a problem for anyone.”
Tony Lunn, also a co-founder of Quiet Princeton, said the serious harm of gas leaf blowers is well known, and that workers should not have to use equipment that is bad for their health. He said California just banned the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment, and he hopes that means more and more manufacturers will stop producing the equipment. “We do not want one-to-one replacements of gas leaf blowers with electric leaf blowers. Sure, they’re a bit quieter, but they’re still noisy. We do need education, so people do understand that they don’t need to have every leaf removed from their lawn,” he said. “We need to educate the homeowners. It’s very important and a lot of effort needs to go into that,” Lunn said, adding that people need to realize the significant distress the noise from equipment causes to others around them.