Santa Monica police cite a gardening crew for using a leaf blower. (File photo)
Santa Monica police cite a gardening crew for using a leaf blower. (File photo)

CITY HALL — Staff is done playing nice with violators of a two-year old leaf blower ban, promising to hand out citations on sight rather than offering warnings to those who continue to blow.

The Office of Sustainability and the Environment announced the plans this week, citing a large number of complaints received in September.

Citations are an infraction, and can involve a fine of up to $250. Under the ordinance, violators can also be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or a jail sentence.

Roughly a dozen people have received citations over the last two years, said Neal Shapiro, Watershed Management Program Coordinator with the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

That’s despite almost 2,500 violation reports received in the first year alone.

In the past, people caught using leaf blowers got at least two warning letters informing them of the law and providing them tips about other options they could use in place of leaf blowers.

The policy worked initially.

The number of violations went down in the months following the adoption of the ordinance, but the use of blowers began to pick up as more gardening took place in the summer months and crews were dispatched to battle fall leaves.

The Office of Sustainability and the Environment hasn’t been tracking the number of violations since the end of the first year, but from the number of letters mailed out and complaints from neighbors, it didn’t seem like the warnings continued to be effective, Shapiro said.

It became clear that property owners, property managers and gardeners themselves were using the warnings to predict enforcement staff’s whereabouts and were actually changing their work patterns to avoid detection, Shapiro said.

“The patrol schedule depends on the violators,” Shapiro said. “If they stick to their schedules, we catch them. If not, it’s harder.”

In May 2012, the Office of Sustainability and the Environment released a report documenting enforcement measures taken in the first year.

Although violations were spread out throughout the city, a large concentration appeared to be in the northeast end of Santa Monica.

People are definitely still using leaf blowers in that area, confirmed Cheryl Raiss, a resident of 21st Street.

Her gardener used to use a leaf blower, but received a warning letter. Now he uses a broom, which takes more time and costs Raiss more money in the process.

It’s unfair, Raiss said, because other gardeners continue to use leaf blowers. It’s also turned neighbors against neighbors, with people out with cameras trying to catch leaf blower operators in the act to prompt a warning letter or citation.

Hilary Rose, owner of Dirty Girl Organic Landcare, sees it all the time. Her company still uses electric leaf blowers where they’re legal, but otherwise sticks to “old-fashioned” techniques like brooms and rakes.

“It is more work and it absolutely takes more time, especially for some of the larger properties,” Rose said. “We’re a green company, always have been. We’re comfortable using more old-school rakes, push brooms, etc. It’s more time-consuming, but we get it.”

The new enforcement will allow officials to hand out citations as soon as they see someone using a leaf blower.

That was good news for Diane Wolfberg of the Zero Air Pollution Los Angeles group, or ZAP L.A.

ZAP L.A. has lobbied for bans on leaf blowers for years, both to combat the noise caused by the machines as well as the pollution.

According to a 2000 report by the Air Resources Board, gas-powered leaf blowers released significantly more carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hydrocarbons than small cars made that year.

They were on par, in many ways, with a car from 1975 or before in terms of emissions.

Even electric blowers like the ones Rose uses come with risks.

Tiny particles get tossed up by the blowers and can stay in the air for up to three days, which can be bad for people sensitive to the materials.

While people used to get upset about the noise, better understanding of the health impacts of the machines has caused those issues to come to the fore, Wolfberg said.

And it’s not just a “crazy California” thing.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from Israel and Australia,” Wolfberg said. “There’s a concern worldwide about it.”

Enforcement officials won’t start handing out tickets overnight. First, they have to learn the proper procedures and how to handle challenges in the field.

Some “mow-and-blow” operators won’t have businesses licenses in Santa Monica, which they are required to have, and may not be able to show identification, making it difficult to cite them.

Staff will be working with Code Enforcement officers, who are also empowered to hand out citations, to learn the tricks of the trade before going out on their own, Shapiro said.

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