Darryl Ponicsan's quest to ban gas-powered leaf blowers in the city of Sonoma could form the plot of one of his Hollywood screenplays.
The pitch goes like this: An accomplished writer working at his home in a leafy neighborhood a few blocks from Sonoma's Plaza is interrupted frequently by a leaf blower's tell-tale roar. The writer confronts gardeners with a sound meter, calls police and in exasperation airs his grievances for months at City Council meetings, including one in which he confesses that he has had to flee downtown to one of the city's wine salons to escape the maddening noise.
"So you can say this is driving me to drink," the writer tells city leaders.
Surprisingly, a majority on the City Council, which two years ago rejected calls for a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, buys it this time around. Following a Sept. 3 public hearing, during which 19 people spoke in favor of the ban — including one woman who had a small dog perched on her shoulder — the council orders an ordinance that would make the city of 10,000 the first in Sonoma County, and one of the very few in the nation, to ban gas-powered blowers.
The move would represent a happy ending for Ponicsan, 75, whose screenplay credits include "The Last Detail," "Vision Quest" and "Nuts." He also is the author of a series of crime novels featuring a 50-year-old woman suffering through menopause.
Ponicsan said in an interview from his France Street home this week that the noise from leaf blowers is so distracting that he sometimes talks on the phone with one finger in his ear. He said he's gathered more than 300 signatures in support of a ban, mostly from people in attendance at the city's Tuesday night farmer's markets, where Ponicsan has manned a booth.
"I don't have any organization. It's just me and whoever shows up," he said. That included, at the Sept. 3 City Council meeting, his wife, Cecilia, who recounted the horror of "mothers trying to outrun clouds of dust" kicked up by leaf blowers.
Sonoma's draft ordinance returns to the City Council Oct. 7 for a first reading. Such efforts have had mixed results in California, where roughly 25 cities, almost all of them in relatively affluent areas, have bans on gas-powered leaf blowers. The city of Carmel was the first in 1975, followed by Beverly Hills in 1978. Berkeley's ban took effect in 1991.
Sebastopol city leaders voted to draft an ordinance in March 2011, but then backed away from a ban amid a public outcry over the decision. The city subsequently enacted a noise ordinance that prohibits sounds above 55 decibels as measured from a person's property line. Sonoma currently caps noise from gas leaf blowers at 70 decibels.
Questions inevitably arise over how to enforce such restrictions. Sonoma relies on the city's police force to respond to complaints; other cities make use of a code enforcement division or other city department.
Ponicsan, who has an artist's studio on First Street East, said a Sonoma police officer a few weeks ago responded to his complaint about a leaf blower being used at the Little League field across the street. Using a sound meter, the officer determined the noise exceeded the city's ordinance and told the leaf blower's operator to shut it down, according to Ponicsan.