CITYWIDE — For years, marijuana dispensaries in the city of Los Angeles spread like wildfire; without a workable city ordinance in place regulation became impossible and enforcement was nonexistent.

Meanwhile, in Santa Monica the consequences of a different, decidedly less flashy law enforcement vacuum have been playing out.

Since 1991, it’s been illegal to operate a mechanical leaf blower within city limits. The catch is, city code says a sworn police officer has to observe a gardener in the act of leaf blowing in order to issue a citation. With other priorities for officers, widespread flaunting of the ordinance has ensued.

To make matters worse, some city officials have noted a second flaw in the current leaf blowing ordinance: As things stand, it’s illegal to operate a leaf blower in Santa Monica, but it’s perfectly above board to pay someone else to blow leaves off your lawn.

It’s an injustice the City Council could be set to undo in 2010.

In a memo to the council this month, Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips suggested modifying the existing ordinance “to hold property owners, rather than leafblower operators, responsible for adherence to the law.”

If adopted by the council, the change would also mean that City Hall’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment, rather than the police department, would be in charge of enforcement. It’s unknown how expensive the potential fines for homeowners would be. Under the existing ordinance gardeners face fines of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail for leaf blower violations.

The OSE would have more leeway to enforce compliance as well. No longer would leaf blower operators have to be caught red-handed before a citation could be written. Instead, OSE staff members could act on tips from residents, similarly to how they currently enforce City Hall’s “No Waste Water” rules.

Deputy City Manager Elaine Polachek last week said she thinks shifting leaf blower responsibility to property owners would be a positive step.

“It’s really up to the home owner to communicate to their gardeners that, ‘When you’re on my property here in Santa Monica you can’t use a leaf blower,’” Polachek said.

Recent efforts to enforce the ban on leaf blowers under the current ordinance illustrate how widespread violations remain.

Officer Adam Gwartz, the neighborhood resource officer for the area north of Montana Avenue, said this month he and three other officers conducted a leaf blower sweep, issuing 15 citations to gardeners in less than three hours.

And at a recent meeting earlier this year of the Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Association, every respondent to a community concerns poll said the leaf blower ban should be enforced more stringently.

Polachek said she expects the council to consider changing the ordinance early next year, though the issue has not yet been placed on an agenda.

Dean Kubani, director of the OSE, said shifting responsibility for leaf blower enforcement to his office shouldn’t pose a problem. Residents already call OSE to report leaf blower use thinking it falls under the department’s purview, he said.

“People see it as an environmental issue. Having it be under our office — when we clearly let people know that we’re enforcing it — I think it will make sense,” he said.

If OSE took over enforcement of the leaf blower ban Kubani said the office would issue warnings to property owners before moving on to citations. In 2009, the office sent out about 836 warnings related to water conservation violations, and issued just 36 citations, he said.

If the council adopts the leaf blower change it would cost City Hall about $50,000 per year to add a part time employee to the OSE staff and to publicize the new rule, according to the memo to the council.

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