Neighborhood Resource Officers Adam Gwartz (right) and Richard Carranza (left) hand a citation to gardener Jesus Duarte (center) and his cousin Miguel De La Cruz for the use of a leaf blower on 20th Street on Thursday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

NOMA — The patrol car stops at the curb and the officers approach the suspect. They’ve caught him red handed, but the man, later identified as Jesus Duarte, doesn’t seem to know it.

He calmly turns off his gas-powered leaf blower, which until seconds ago he had been using to beautify a yard in this posh North of Montana Avenue neighborhood, and places it in the back of a pickup truck parked in the driveway.

He and his cousin, Miguel de la Cruz, are gardeners working for their uncle’s landscaping company. Both tell the officers they had no idea it’s illegal to operate a leaf blower inside Santa Monica’s city limits.

But Duarte is about to pay the price.

It’s 10:06 a.m. on Thursday, and Santa Monica Police officers Adam Gwartz and Richard Carranza are on leaf blower patrol, a once per month operation to enforce City Hall’s ban on the noisy, air-polluting devices.

The law banning motorized leaf blowers — whether electric or gas powered — has been in effect since 1991 but continues to be widely flouted by gardeners who either don’t know about the ban or choose to take their chances because raking is harder on the back and more time consuming.

After Gwartz explains that Santa Monica’s law puts the penalty for using a leaf blower on the gardener, and not on the property owner who pays for illegal yard maintenance, he writes Duarte up for an infraction. That’s the lesser of the available punishments (violating the ordinance can also be a misdemeanor punishable by $1,000 fine and six months in jail), but will still cost about $250 once court fees are tacked on.

“Sorry about that,” Gwartz says after issuing the ticket.

The gardeners take the punishment in stride — not that they’d call it completely fair.

Duarte said the owner of the home on 20th Street where he was working never informed him of Santa Monica’s ban.

“They didn’t even give us a warning, that’s why I didn’t even know,” he said.

De la Cruz is surprised that not even electric bowers are permitted in the city.

“With the broom, it’s a lot of time,” he said. “It’s more difficult because sometimes it’s a lot of leaves.”

With that it’s back to the streets. Gwartz and Carranza are patrolling Santa Monica’s north side for violators while another two-officer team is on the south side, concentrating on Sunset Park, also a hotbed for leaf blower complaints. On a busy anti-leaf blower sweep the officers will issue a total of 16 citations during a three-hour operation.

The enforcement is welcome news to many Santa Monica residents, who say the buzz of leaf blowers continues to be an irritation. Residents frequently report violations to the police, but with an average response time of 24 minutes to the low-priority calls, violators have usually moved on by the time officers arrive.

The monthly sweeps are an attempt to boost compliance with the ban, but officers admit it’s hardly bringing everyone into line.

In response to enforcement difficulties, City Hall officials and some members of the City Council have proposed shifting responsibility for obeying the leaf blower ban from gardeners to the homeowners who allow their lawns to be illegally cleared.

In January, the City Council discussed the idea and directed staff to begin drafting a revamped leaf blower ban, though council members said they expected to have a broad discussion of potential fixes before possibly changing the law.

Whether the law gets amended this year could come down to money. The proposal to hold property owners accountable would cost City Hall $50,000 per year to hire a part-time staff person in the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE), which would take over enforcement duties.

With City Hall facing a $13.2 million deficit, that expense wasn’t included in the proposed budget the council is set to adopt June 15.

Councilman Kevin McKeown this week said he’s working to get the leaf blower funding added in, but it’s unclear if a majority on the council will back the plan.

“The only way it seems we’re going to move toward proactive enforcement is with the budget shift to increase staff in OSE, and then the enactment of a revised ordinance moving responsibilities into OSE and accountability onto the property owner,” McKeown said.

Gwartz and Carranza, who are both neighborhood resource officers, meanwhile continue to work with the tools they have.

At a later stop in the fabulously wealthy neighborhood north of San Vicente Boulevard at the eastern edge of the city, Carranza speaks in Spanish to a gardener named Mario Rosas-Cruz, another leaf blower operator caught in the act.

An employee of Pardee & Fleming Landscape, he, too, says he was unaware of the ban.

“I didn’t know about it. If I had known, I wouldn’t have used it,” he says.

In this neighborhood, where houses have 12-foot hedges, private tennis courts and views of the Riviera Country Club, the officers again explain it’s the gardener, not the homeowner, who’s at fault.

Before the infraction citation is handed out, a resident emerges from the mansion where Rosas-Cruz had been working. While the man doesn’t get a ticket, Gwartz asks him to inform his employees about the ban.

“Unfortunately they all do it,” the man says, apparently referring to neighborhood gardeners. To his gardener, who’s by now holding a citation, he adds, “Lo siento” — Spanish for “I’m sorry” — before walking down the street with his dog.

To the officers who enforce the leaf blower ban, it’s all in a day’s work.

“The law is the law. We have to enforce it fairly whether it’s up here or anywhere else in the city,” Gwartz says.

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