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A gardner uses a leaf blower to clean the sidewalk along 26th Street on Wednesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — Using a leaf blower within the city limits has been off limits since 1991, but a daytime walk through most neighborhoods would seem to suggest otherwise, and some residents are steamed.

“You can walk around Santa Monica on any day of the week and see people using leaf blowers,” said one resident who lives near the intersection of San Vicente and Ocean Avenues. “I clean and dust my residence one day, and a day later I can write my name in the dust on the windowsill … on a daily basis. Why isn’t the law being enforced?”

The answer to that question is not a simple one, with law enforcement officers, gardeners and residents caught in a policy and priority vacuum.

“Usually we have a lot of calls for leaf blower violations, but in most cases the person is only using the blower for five minutes, and then they’re gone. So 95 percent of the time we can’t catch them,” said Sunset Park Neighborhood Resource Officer Artis Williams, explaining that officers must catch an individual in the act of using a leaf blower in order for the individual to be cited.

Last year, police in Santa Monica cited 46 individuals for leaf blower ordinance violations, down from 50 in 2007. As of last Thursday, the SMPD cited five individuals in 2009.

Those caught in the act can be fined $250 or as much as $1,000 if found to be a misdemeanor violation, according to the Municipal Code. There’s also the possibility of six months in jail.

“I haven’t written a citation for a leaf blower violation in years,” said Officer Adam Gwartz, whose beat covers Santa Monica north of Montana Avenue.

“But let me qualify that by saying that I have a whole little project I do with that,” added Gwartz, explaining that he finds personal communication to be much more effective in deterring such infractions.

Gwartz, as well as Williams, said that sending letters and paying visits to property owners and managers is often the most efficient and effective way of stopping the problem.

“I’m trying to bite the apple from the other side by advising the users and asking for the cooperation of homeowners and management companies in getting them to stop,” Gwartz said.

But a great number of obstacles prevent officers from keeping an eye on the situation at all times. In the scheme of calls that officers respond to daily, complaints about leaf blowers are of a lower priority.

“We’ve done sweeps in the past,” Gwartz said. “Sometimes we’ll have a couple of officers go out there and specifically watch for it, but on most occasions we just don’t have time.”

In consequence, officers are forced to rely on citizens to serve as neighborhood watchdogs, many of whom have taken it upon themselves to be especially proactive with this issue.

These voices can be heard from both local residents and from neighborhood organizations and their representatives.

“(Blowers) are definitely something that people complain about at our group,” said Jeanne Dodson, chairwoman of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition. “It’s definitely something people are annoyed by.”

Dodson added that while she has heard some discussion of the issue, most of the residents she speaks to are concerned more about traffic congestion, parking and other issues that affect Downtown.

“My incentive is not to make people angry, I just want to bring light to the issue,” said Sara Turbezille, a resident who lives near the Montana Avenue and 22nd Street intersection and who jokingly calls herself the assistant deputy of leaf blowing affairs.

“It started with a defense of my own comfort level and morphed into something that I wanted to bring attention to because of the health risks from this kind of pollution,” she added. “These are savvy people who live in this neighborhood … people who should care about their health; I want people to have the facts.”

But even Turbezille, vehemently opposed to blower use as she is, said she can empathize with peace officers and the challenges they face in enforcing such laws.

“I feel he’s doing the best he can do. He’s not a hall monitor,” she said of Gwartz. “I know the hierarchy of crime and this is probably, out of necessity, the last thing on the list; I understand that. And I think with his time, he’s doing all he can.”

And with the combined efforts of Santa Monica police and community-conscious residents, things are beginning to improve, officers said.

“It’s definitely getting better but we are still getting complaints,” William said. “Probably the biggest difficulty is that there are different laws on leaf blowers from city to city and not all of the gardeners are aware of this. We take the time to educate them, but sometimes we have to come back repeatedly and it’s at that point that we issue a citation.”

Some residents have called on the City Council to amend the current law allowing officers to ticket homeowners and the companies that use leaf blowers, instead of just punishing individual workers.

Ongoing adjustments on the part of the SMPD, including the establishment of the neighborhood resource officers program, have been the greatest catalyst for progress, said Sgt. Dave Hunscke.

“The neighborhood resource officers have the extra time and some other tools at their disposal to help try to solve the problem in the long term,” he said. “I think in the next year, you’ll see some new solutions to problems that have been long-standing. A combination of the officers’ work and citizen ideas will produce a solution.”

Hunscke said he is hopeful for the success of the 14-month-old program, adding that adjustments will be made where necessary in order to produce results.

“It doesn’t hurt to try something new,” he said. “If it doesn’t work we’ll try something else and we’ll keep trying until the problem is solved.”

news@smdp.com

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