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Fifth Time’s a Charm…or Is It?

On Tuesday, May 3rd, the second night of Marblehead’s annual Town Meeting commenced, and with it came a contentious discussion over Article 31. The goal of the article was to implement a ban on all gasoline-powered leaf blowers from what was originally to be May 15 through October 15, but was later changed to Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. 


Similar articles advocating some form of restriction on gasoline-powered blowers have been presented annually at Town Meeting for the prior four years, with various arguments put forward each time. In 2018, sponsors protested the use of leaf blowers primarily on the basis of noise pollution. In 2019, undeterred by the previous year’s failure, proponents centered their argument around the air pollution caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The next year saw a combination of the previous two years' arguments, with an additional discussion of the alternative options for leaf removal. That year proponents yet again failed to achieve the majority vote required for approval. In 2021, much of the discussion focused on the ways in which leaf blowers are detrimental to birds and those who wish to observe them, along with the other issues presented in previous years. This argument was no more successful than its predecessors, warranting some skepticism about the prospects for success in 2022, but in the end it seems the fifth time was the charm.


Article 31 of this year’s meeting, sponsored by Buck Grader, was nearly identical to its counterparts in past years, with the exception of the more limited time frame. Its introduction spurred a long period of discussion filled with interjections from the crowd, frequent involvement on the part of the moderator, Gary Spiess, and passionate arguments on both sides of the issue. 


Those in support most commonly argued three points about gasoline-powered leaf blowers: they produce noise in such a way as to be disruptive even to neighbors not in the home being landscaped; they produce greenhouse gas emissions detrimental to the environment; and there are alternative options available to landscapers that would allow them to work in a quieter and cleaner manner that is less disruptive to other homeowners. By contrast, those opposed to the bill argued that such leaf blowers are a necessity for landscapers to properly perform their jobs and assure customer satisfaction, and that the alternatives being suggested were, for a variety of reasons, not viable options.


Grader introduced his article in a colorful manner, claiming that  “no matter where I go, at some time, there’s a leaf blower annoying the hell out of me” and that “a leaf blower running for one hour pollutes more than a Toyota Corolla running for 1100 miles.” Myra Sussman also spoke in support of the ban, presenting testimony from representatives of two landscaping companies who suggested that they use entirely electric tools and have not encountered any performance issues or customer complaints.


Opposition to Article 31 ran the gamut from Roseanne McCarthy, who questioned whether the bill was a form of harassment directed at hardworking landscapers who are trying to earn a living and support their families, to Ben Cleary, who explained that “it’s unfair to strip away a landscaper’s most valuable tool and our residents who enjoy leaf blowers, and are only trying to make our community a more beautiful place to live.”

The final argument made was by Todd Norman, whose frustration with the proposed ban was palpable. “I’m sorry it makes noise. Boats make noise. Hammers make noise. Everything out there [makes noise]. Chainsaws make noise. If you stab at the leaf blowers, it’s gonna be our lawnmowers and then it’s gonna be the weed wackers. Something is gonna be irritating somebody.” He additionally mentioned that even electric blowers contain lithium batteries that require large amounts of diesel fuel to mine, and that electric leaf blowers blow hazardous particles from the sidewalks and driveways in a similar fashion to their gas-powered counterparts.


With long lines of citizens still waiting to make their voices heard,  Cheryl Patten put forward a point of order regarding the change made to the dates in the article at the time of introduction. The moderator responded that after deliberation with the Town Counsel, it was ruled to be permissible. Grader, after clarifying the issue as well, added, “This is a lot of BS! We’re not talking about getting rid of gas-powered leaf blowers. We’re asking for three months so that you don’t have to be blowing the hardscape with nothing there!” His outburst, despite being out of turn, received enthusiastic support from the audience. He went on to declare “...just vote the article. One way or the other, everybody knows how they wanna vote. Just vote!”


After the moderator orchestrated a hand-based vote, he decided that it was too close to call, and the manual tellers were enlisted. Ten minutes later the results were in, and the moderator read them aloud. The Town of Marblehead had voted, with 254 in the affirmative and 202 opposed, to adopt Article 31 and implement an annual three month long gasoline leaf blower ban.


After carefully reading the language of Article 31, many citizens are questioning the possibility that it will be rendered void due to the lack of provision for enforcement. An article must dictate which government entity will be responsible for assuring adherence to the law, and many would expect for it to be either the Marblehead Police Department or Board of Health, but in the case of Article 31, neither was given jurisdiction. It remains to be seen whether the summer gasoline-powered leaf blower ban is legally enforceable.  


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A few comments:

1 - There should be an article next year indicating that if you lose at town meeting you can't come back for 3-5 years with the same or question.

2 - With no enforcement and no fine - is this not just feel good legislation?

3 - The landscapers could use an electric blower powered from a giant diesel generator that makes way more noise than the Blower.

People telling other people what to do almost always ends badly.

For additional information and clarification regarding the article by Marblehead Beacon,
please see the Letter to the Editor from the sponsors of Article 31. The Article passed 254
to 202 and even though there was no specific language regarding enforcement, we hope
that, for the health and quality of life of all residents, individuals and landscapers will
consider a voluntary ban this summer.