Cambridge City

Committee Report
CRT 2016 #38
Aug 1, 2016 5:30 PM

A communication was received from Donna P. Lopez, City Clerk transmitting a report from Councillor Jan Devereux, Chair of the Health and Environment Committee for a public hearing held on June 21, 2016 to discuss the City’s Leaf Blower Ordinance, new research since its passage and other issues related to leaf blowers.


Department:City Clerk's OfficeSponsors:
Category:Health & Environment





Councillor Jan Devereux, Chair

Councillor Dennis Carlone
Councillor Craig Kelley

Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern

Councillor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr.



The Health and Environment Committee held a public hearing on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, at 2:07 P.M. in the Sullivan Chamber.


The purpose of the hearing was to discuss the Citys Leaf Blower Ordinance, new research since its passage and other issues related to leaf blowers.


Present at the hearing were Councillor Devereux, Chair of the Committee, Councillor Carlone, Councillor Mazen, Richard Rossi, City Manager, Lisa Peterson, Deputy City Manager, Owen ORiordan, Commissioner of Public Works, John Nardone, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, David Webster, Superintendent of Parks and Urban Forestry, Public Works Department,

Nicole Murati Ferrer, Chair of the Cambridge License Commission, Andrea Boyer, Chief Licensing Investigator, Cambridge License Commissioner, Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health, Cambridge Health Department, Sam Corda, Managing Director, Water Department, Nancy Glowa, City Solicitor and City Clerk Donna P. Lopez. 


Also present were Virginia Coleman, 2 Berkeley Place, Jo Solet, Berkeley Street, Elizabeth Westling, 33 Foch Street, Larry Tribe, Fresh Pond Parkway, Susan Cooke, 30 Westland Road, Watertown, Janet Burns, 57 Frost Street, Megan Brook, 103 Inman Street, Ed Abrams, 80 Wendell Street, Lizzie DeRham, 20 Middlesex Street, Steve Wineman, 26 McTernan Street, Sallie Adams, 986 Memorial Drive, Chris Young, 56 Concord Avenue, John Pitkin, 18 Fayette Street, G. Simmers, 8 Alpine Street, Ted Live, 17 Wendell Street, Dr. Jamie Banks, Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Quinton Zondervan, President, Green Cambridge, David Sites and George Carrette, Landscape Consultant.


Councillor Devereux convened the hearing and explained the purpose.  She stated that the hearing is being audio and video recorded.  An agenda was distributed (ATTACHMENT A). She outlined the citys leaf blower ordinance. Leaf Blowers can only be used during certain seasons and at certain times of day. The ordinance has proven difficult to enforce and enforcement is largely complaint-driven. (ATTACHMENT B).  Since the ordinance was enacted in 2007 there is new information about leaf blowers so it is time to reexamine the ordinance.  This hearing is to start the conversation and bring forward new scientific evidence on leaf blowers since the ordinances original passage. 


Ms. Murati Ferrer, Chair of License Commission, spoke about changes to enforcement.  The permitting and enforcing is done at the License Commission and the License Commission has recently begun taking a more proactive and stricter approach to enforcing this ordinance.  Letters were sent out to the approved commercial landscape companies, both current and past, explaining the permitting process.  A cease and desist order was sent out to bring unapproved commercial operators into compliance.  Landscaping companies were also notified about the enforcement compliance and permitting.  Those not in compliance are coming before the License Commission for violation hearings.  A press release was distributed by the License Commission (ATTACHMENT C)


City Manager Rossi stated his support for the statements made by Ms. Murati Ferrer.  When the ordinance was adopted the goal was to regulate commercial users.  This is a complaint driven ordinance, which is not a good approach to achieve full compliance.  He suggested seasonal staff to assist the License Commission with enforcement and compliance.  Leaf blowers are used by the Water and Public Works Departments and at the Golf Course.  He stated that supervisors in departments should take better ownership to do better jobs.  This can be done more effectively by the City.  This is a time to look at the current equipment, which is different from the equipment available in 2007 and to tweak the ordinance.  The ordinance needs to be tightened and residents should not feel that they are the leaf blower police.  It is not realistic to hire people to rake the Citys parks.  The City will do a better job. 


Andrea Boyer, Chief License Investigator, spoke about enforcement.  She stated that there are 37 commercial landscaping companies who have gone through the approval process to operate leaf blowers in the City and there were 27 complaints as of March 3, 2016, with 2 pending hearings before the License Commission.  Ms. Boyer stated that she welcomed changes to the ordinance. 


Ms. Murati Ferrer explained that these complaints were at the beginning of the season which begins on March 15, 2016, because the use of leaf blowers were started before the March 15th date.  Complaints were for previously permitted companies who were not aware that the permits needed to be renewed yearly.   Also some of the companies had changes in ownership.  She explained that letters were mailed to the companies to remind them that the permits needed to be renewed yearly.  Ms. Boyer explained that the 27 were complaints from companies who were operating multiple leaf blowers.  All complaints are documented; some are anonymous.  Mr. Zondervan asked if the 27 complaints were from March 3, 2016.  Ms. Boyer responded in the affirmative.


Commissioner O'Riordan explained that Public Works is responsible for the maintenance of 80 city parks; 50% are maintained by employees of Public Works and the remainder are maintained by contractors.  He stated that eliminating the use of leaf blowers as a tool would increase the expense by 25%.  He stated that Public Works uses leaf blower and if further restriction were placed on the use of leaf blowers the ability to get playing fields ready for sports would be difficult, as there is a short window of time between winter and the spring season.  There is a cost concern as well as maintaining the facilities.  He stated that Public Works will be looking at their major vehicles in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas.  He further stated that small equipment engines which can provide the same level of work will be reviewed by Public Works.  Public Works maintains a website containing best practices for leaf blowers.  Municipal contractors are required to get permits from the License Commission and are subject to the same constraints as other landscape contractors. 


John Nardone stated that every year at the beginning of the season Public Works meets with supervisors and contractors to discuss environmental concerns.  He stated that the City can do a better job.  He added that there have been changes to leaf blower equipment since 2007, which have a three-year life cycle.  He stated that leaf blower equipment has changed in this time period to keep up with EPA standards and decibel levels.  He spoke about the necessity for education to ensure that leaf blowers are used when allowed.  Councillor Devereux asked what leaf blower equipment the City is currently using.  Mr. Nardone responded that the City recently purchased a Stihl battery operated leaf blower and is trying it out.  Mr. Webster, Supervisor of Parks and Forestry, Public Works Department, spoke about the equipment that the city uses.  He stated that Stihl makes a low decibel leaf blower.  He stated that the City is trying out battery operated leaf blowers.  Mr. Nardone stated that hand held leaf blowers are being tested by Public Works.


Councillor Carlone stated that in 2007 it appeared it would cost about 25% more not to use leaf blowers.  In answer to a question by Councillor Carlone Mr. O'Riordan stated that the maintenance cost for the parks is $800,000.  


Sam Corda, Managing Director, Water Department, stated that leaf blowers are used at the Fresh Pond Reservation, which has 12.5 acres of maintained lawns, 1.8 acres of planting beds and six miles of pathways.  The majority of the work is done by contractors who use a Stihl 500 reduced decibel back pack model and a rechargeable handheld blower.  As areas of the reservation are renovated it is imperative to do this work in a cost effective way.  He stated that the Water Department is striving to do better.  He stated that it is in the contract for low noise, low emissions and battery devices.  It is important to do proper maintenance at the Fresh Pond Reservation.


Deputy City Manager Peterson stated that the City is improving education, enforcement and to make the ordinance more effective.  She added that it is important to have leaf blowers in the City's tool chest.  The use can be limited but it is important to have leaf blowers available.


Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health, stated that he is here to answer questions regarding the current ordinance enacted in 2007.  He stated that he would offer background information if questions arise.


Councillor Devereux introduced Dr. Jamie Banks, who had a PowerPoint presentation entitled Leaf Blowers and Public Health: Time for Change (ATTACHMENT D-1). Dr. Banks stated she would be discussing the work of Quiet Communities, (ATTACHMENT D-2) the noise problem, health and environmental issues, and how this can be addressed.  She stated that there are other positive approaches that the City might consider to lead by example.  She stated that she has spent most of her life in health care research. She stated that it is not easy to change behavior and it takes a multi-faceted approach.  The industry is entrenched in fossil fuel consumption and machine-based practices.  She stated that Quiet Communities is a 501c3 organization started in 2013 that centers on the need for education in this area, new technologies and practices. She stated that leaf blowers are noisy, expel exhaust and particulate matter.  She stated that over the last twenty years there has been total dependence on this tool and other gas-powered tools for work that was once done by hand.  There are 11-12 million gas-powered tools being used in the United States.  She spoke about the dangers associated with leaf blower use, including fuel consumption, emissions, noise, toxic waste and toxic solid parts that go into landfills and health effects, such as respiratory and auditory consequences.  She spoke about the emissions as of 2011.  Hand-held equipment is the biggest producer of the 2.5 emissions particulates.  The danger is the equipment and also there is non-compliance chronic behavior.  She spoke about leaf blowers being used for purposes other than what they were intended for.  Children, seniors, those with respiratory problems and the workers who use the leaf blowers are at risk from the equipment.  She stated that the adverse health effect by using this equipment is hazardous and serious.  This does not take long term exposure for the health impacts.  She spoke about the noise created by leaf blowers and the chronic buzz from the equipment which has a strong low frequency which can go through walls and windows.  There is an education component for those who use this equipment consistently because there is a safety issue with the equipment being louder than 85 decibels, which is the level that causes hearing loss.  She explained that the gas powered leaf blowers can be as high as 105- 115 decibels.   This is a tremendous hazard for workers who do not use protective equipment.  She stated that it has been corrected that a 70 decibel level over the course of a day is the maximum noise exposure to prevent hearing loss. She highlighted some health effects caused by the noise.  Dr. Banks stated that with the pollutants, particulates and the noise there is a growing concern over gas powered leaf blowers.


Dr. Banks stated that there are different solutions and alternative technologies.  She spoke about leaf mulching for fields, which increases soil health and extends the life of fields.  She spoke about the advance of electronic technology.  Some communities have used electric equipment.  Electric trucks are clean and odorless.  She stated manual tools are still useful.  She defined a certified Green Zone as a defined area of land that is maintained entirely with emissions-free equipment, certified by the American Green Zone Alliance.  There is a ten-step program and workers are trained on certified equipment.  Maintenance on electric equipment is less than gas-powered equipment.  She stated that Cambridge should create a Green Zone.  The idea is for Cambridge to lead by example.  Quiet Communities is the licensing agency for the American Green Zone Alliance.


George Carrette, Landscape Consultant, Founder of Eco Quiet Lawn Care, stated that he put $40,000 into electric equipment and has since made a net profit.  He maintains 30 properties using electric equipment which relates to 500 kilowatt hours.  He was able to expand rapidly and it would be beneficial to Public Works to do the same. He stated that his work quality is better with the electric equipment.  He spoke about examples where the equipment is so quiet his customers are not aware he is working.  He has received no complaints about his equipment.  He cited the benefit of electric leaf blower use for Cambridge, there are smaller walkways, dust and refuse should not be poured into the street and inhaled by people.  This is where manual tools are effective to clean up leaves.  He uses a shovel to pick up soil debris so he does not inhale this matter.  He stated that he would be willing to show the equipment that he uses to Public Works. 


Quinton Zondervan, President, Green Cambridge, had a presentation entitled Leaf Blowers (ATTACHMENT E).  He stated that the ban is not working and the equipment is loud.  He noted the health hazard to the workers.  The Cambridge police have better things to do than to enforce the leaf blower ordinance.  He stated that the contractors are not aware that they should not be using leaf blowers.  The only pros to using leaf blowers is that the job can be done faster.  He spoke about soil that is sequestering carbon, which is hastening climate change.  The American Lung Association suggests using a rake.  He explained that the leaf blowers are banned in 20 cities in California.  Cambridge has restricted use of leaf blowers, but he stated that the fossil fuel versions of leaf blowers should be banned in Cambridge. He stated that the technology is available for electric leaf blowers so why not use them.  The limitations are not understood by contractors and the general public.  He only uses manual equipment on his yard. 


Councillor Devereux stated that there is interest in this in other communities, including locations in California and communities in Massachusetts, including Newton. She held up the brochure produced by the City which are available at the License Commission, Public Works, and a PDF version is available on line (ATTACHMENT F).


Councillor Devereux opened public comment at 3:17 PM.


Virginia Coleman, 2 Berkeley Place, stated that upon her retirement in 2014 as a lawyer she has been besieged by noise from leaf blowers.  She did not know that there was an ordinance that restricted leaf blowers.   She stated that the ordinance is totally ineffective.  She stated that commercial leaf blower users need to be approved.  She explained that she had the application and that it was insufficient.  The approval is a pro forma process.  She stated that compliance is something different.  She stated that she has not seen a leaf blower used for what it was built for.  The operator often does not use hearing protection.  The limitation period restrictions should be reviewed as there are times when it does not make sense and there is no compliance.  She stated there is no need to use leaf blowers in the spring.  She added all the leaves are down by December 15th.  She stated that that to speak to the user you must flag him down because he cannot hear you over the leaf blower and if he can hear he may not understand because he may not speak English.  The workers have no control over the circumstances in which they work.  She stated that Cambridge should be ashamed that this situation exists.  She spoke about restrictions.  She stated that when users on the sidewalk the leaf blowers only move the stuff around.  The noise level of 65 decibels per the manufactures rating is based on 50 feet measurement, which is not how it is used.  She stated that she has no way of knowing if the equipment is meeting the manufacturers rating.  How can she measure noise? She stated that the only sensible noise restriction would be based on the actual noise level emitted by the equipment at any given time.  Cambridge can and must do a better job.  She e-mailed her comments which are attached as (ATTACHMENT G).


Jo Solet, stated that she is a scientist, educator and clinician and has been invited to speak on the impacts of noise as far away as Paris, but today she is speaking as a citizen.  She held up a picture of her granddaughters, herself and her husband preparing their yard for the winter.  She stated that mow, blow and go is not the way to go; this is marketing hype.  She stated that leaves are a part of the natural cycle and noise blasting, dust blowing machines are not necessary for this work.  Leaf blower workers are not protected from their use and they deserve better.  She submitted her comments together with two articles from William J. Murphy from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (ATTACHMENTS H-1 - H-3).  She spoke about clouds of particulates that cannot be contained.  She compared banning leaf blowers with banning cigarettes and how it was felt it would have bad economic consequences.  She stated that this is no different.  She distributed pictures of a mulch shooter and leave blowers being used on roofs where it blows debris onto others property (ATTACHMENT H-4).  She stated that she did not feel that she should have to take pictures of these violations and ask the workers to stop; workers who cannot hear her or may not understand what she is saying.  She concluded that the leaf blower ordinance is inadequate and unenforceable despite the efforts of Ms. Boyer.  She stated that Cambridge is identified with innovation and sustainable practices, pedestrians and cyclists; how can leaf blowers be privileged over all other activities.  This must end - stop it please.


Susan Cook, 30 Westland Road, Watertown, thanked Cambridge for being a leader.  She hopes more will be done.  She stated that she is a researcher on stress in cities.  She stated that all sources of unwanted noise are causing such widespread mental and physical health problems that the World Health Organization calls noise pollution is a worldwide health emergency.   She spoke about all the aspects of noise that touch everyone's lives.  Living in major cities causes higher rates of mental illness.  She stated that one of the worst things is to not get out in nature and take walks and to go to places where we met our neighbors.  Noise effects increases anxiety, anger, depression, addiction, high blood pressure and changes related to alarming increases in heart disease, slower learning in children and aggression.  She suggested public service announcements about the effects of noise and more noise limits at all times of the day.    Communication from Susan Cooke transmitting suggestions to consider to reduce noise pollution and the severe stress to City dwellers caused by noise pollution.  She submitted her comments (ATTACHMENTS I-1-I-2).


Megan Brook, 103 Inman Street, stated that she supported a total ban or far better restrictions and enforcement.  She noted that the City should not be expecting residents to do the enforcement.  She asked why the landscaping standards are so high all the time.  Over landscaping is bad for the soil, plants and wildlife and it is driven by the contractor.  Soon the air will be dirtier that the ground we walk on.  She hates the noise, fumes and the dust.  She stated that today she observed a leaf blower being used to blow dust into the street.  This action is illegal.  She requested taking this burden off the shoulders of people.  She stated that there was no need for the leaf blower before it was invented.  Her comments are attached (ATTACHMENT J).


Ed Abrams, 80 Wendell Street, stated that this is an ongoing problem and has not gotten better since the ordinance was enacted.  The landscapers ignore the ordinance and there are many who are unaware of the ordinance.   He explained that in October it is impossible to have a peaceful day.  The leaf blowing begins at 7 AM.  The City uses leaf blowers and it is counterproductive with the City's policy on climate change.  He noted that the level of pollution from leaf blowers is incredible.  It is hard to have a peaceful day at the Fresh Pond Reservation because of the noise from leaf blowers.  He wanted a total ban of leaf blowers.


Lizzie DeRham, Middlesex Street stated that without Ms. Boyer she would have gone berserk.  A violation occurred on Lakeview Avenue and the neighbor did not want to complain so as to not start a war.  She suggested to give inspectors the authority to fine at $300 per day. This was effective to curtail usage.  She had her house painted and in 2 months it was dirty due to leaf blowers.  She stated that there are a lot of diesel particulates from leaf blowers.  She noted that this is stressful.  High school students need exercise and need to have a future and this could be an educational tool.  She stated that enforcement is impossible.  Tweaking the ordinance will do nothing.  She suggested just banning leaf blowers and converting to electric equipment.


Steve Wineman, 26 McTernan Street, lives across street from Dana Park.  He stated that since retiring leaf blowers have been a significant source of stress in his life.   He hears that having the window open can be hazardous of to his health because of the leaf blowers.  He wanted the City to inform residents of the health hazard of leaf blowers.  This is an obligation of the City to its citizens to notify residents each time that the City is using leaf blowers.  He struggles to understand the benefit of using leaf blowers.  He stated that leaf blowers are used to blow grass clippings off of walkways.  Children are not able to make and play in leaf piles and using leaves is beneficial for composting. He favors a total ban.


Chris Young stated that using electric leaf blowers eliminates carcinogenic emissions, but not the dust or particulates.  He commented that tuberculosis was caused from coal dust. Dog feces on sidewalks are blown into the air.  He favors a total ban or ban two stroke engines which produces more carcinogenic matter than anything else on the planet.  


John Pitkin, 18 Fayette Street, stated that the city needs to use its regulatory powers.  A ban on leaf blowers is called for, including electric models.  Leaf blowers are environmentally harmful by degrading the soil.  He spoke about cloud dust destroying the soil that is being eroded. 


Ted Live, spoke about impact of leaf blowers as noise polluters.  He praised Ms. Boyer on her enforcement of the ordinance.  Restricting use to only electric leaf blowers may be a benefit.  He spoke about avoiding using leaf blowers to clean off a surface which seems to be a much used method of using leaf blowers.  He suggested restricting the improper use of leaf blowers.  He spoke about leaf blower vacuum; it mulches the leaves and he questioned if this would also be banned. 


Public comment closed at 3:55 PM.


Councillor Carlone stated that he is intrigued about Green Zones and using electric equipment as an alternative.  He stated that he hates the noise and the dust.  The reality is that if there is a major step that can be taken it should be considered. The ecological concerns with the electric equipment is still valid and needs to be addressed. 


Ms. Brook asked why leaf blowers are used instead of street cleaning equipment to clean parking lots.


Councillor Devereux stated that the City acknowledged it can do better and wants to do a better job.  Councillor Devereux stated that this matter will be kept in committee to give the City time to look at improvements to equipment, piloting a Green Zone and upgrading the City fleet and equipment.  There is a need for improvements in communication, enforcement and a communication on the health impacts.  She stated that improvement in training is needed for City employees and contractors that the City hires so that the equipment is being used appropriately and to ensure that employees are wearing protective gear, including face masks.  She wanted to have another conversation in early September on this matter to come up with a plan.  She did not want a total ban taken off of the table.  The testimony is compelling that leaf blowers do not need to be used as much and used more efficiently.


City Manager Rossi stated that the City can report prior to September on what steps the City can take. 


Councillor Devereux stated that Councillor Kelley, a member of the committee, sent in a written statement (ATTACHMENT K).  One of his suggestion was whether the Commonwealth Connect System could be used to report leaf blowers complaints and this will help raise awareness that complaints can be made and enforcement done.


Dr. Banks stated that this is not a consistent problem because people are at work so it is hard to generate broad based support. She suggested a broad-based campaign that would expose the City to what people are experiencing in their homes could generate support. 


Ms. Solet wanted the use of leaf blowers around the schools to be on the agenda.  Councillor Devereux also noted that how the equipment is used around the schools and proper use of leaf blowers by city contractors would be discussed.


The following e-mails were received and made part of the record:


Communication from Michael Richard, 25 Highland Avenue, stating that the issue is noise and the ordinance is worthless (ATTACHMENT L).


Communication from Lawrence Hartmann, MD, 147 Brattle Street, urging that leaf blowers be banned totally (ATTACHMENT M).


Florrie and Jim Wescoat, 33 Market Street, urging a ban on gasoline powered landscaping maintenance equipment (ATTACHMENT N).


Communication from Maggie Booz, Co-Chair, Committee on Public Planting, urging limiting or preventing the use of leaf blowers in Cambridge (ATTACHMENT O).


Communication from Tori Hiney, Environmental Horticulturist, commenting on the impacts of leaf blowers on plants, soil health and wildlife (ATTACHMENT P).


Communication from Nan M. Laird, Harvey V. Fineberg Research Professor of Biostatistics, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, resident of 156 Hancock Street, commenting that gas powered leaf blowers are a health risk for air and noise pollution (ATTACHMENT Q).


Communication from Mike Solet, urging the complete ban on leaf blowers (ATTACHMENT R).


Communication from Genevieve and Joseph T. Coyle, MD, 230 Lakeview Avenue, requesting restricting the use of leaf blowers and strengthening the enforcement (ATTACHMENT S).


Communication from Elizabeth Bohlen, 111 Chestnut Street, in opposition to leaf blowers (ATTACHMENT T).


Communication from Sallie B. Adams, 986 Memorial Drive, commenting on the negative impact of leaf blowers (noise and air pollution, user health effects, ineffectiveness of leaf blowers and use outside of what is allowed) outweighing the positive aspects (ATTACHMENT U).


Communication from Barbara S. Baker, Coldwell Banker, Huron Avenue, opposed to leaf blowers as an unnecessary form of pollution (ATTACHMENT V).








Councillor Devereux thanked all those present for their attendance.


The hearing adjourned at 4:06 P.M.


For the Committee,



Councillor Jan Devereux, Chair

Health and Environment Committee





Meeting History

Aug 1, 2016 5:30 PM Video City Council Special Meeting
draft Draft