Sonoma bans some leaf blowers; opponents vow ballot fight

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A divided Sonoma City Council on Monday adopted a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers within city limits, a move that would make the city of 11,000 the first in Sonoma County and one of the few nationwide to enforce such restrictions.

But the council’s action before a packed crowd does not end the city’s yearslong debate over the landscaping devices. Opponents vowed to push forward with plans for a citywide referendum to delay and possibly overturn the prohibition.

The ordinance otherwise takes effect July 1. It would ban gas-powered blowers in Sonoma but allow the continued use of electric and battery-powered devices, albeit under more limited hours of operation. Commercial operators, as well as private property owners and tenants, could be subject to fines if they are caught using gas blowers.

Councilman David Cook called the ordinance a good compromise after years of debate.

“It’s time we put something on the books in this town,” he said.

Mayor Laurie Gallian and Councilwoman Madolyn Agrimonti joined Cook in supporting the ordinance. Councilwoman Rachel Hundley and Councilman Gary Edwards were opposed.

Hundley argued the ban doesn’t achieve the goal of reducing particulate matter in the air or reducing noise because electric blowers still cause those problems. Edwards referenced the costs he said will be borne by landscapers and property owners by having to replace equipment.

“We’re going to force people to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to replace equipment they’ve already spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars for,” he said.

Barring a successful voter challenge, Sonoma would join about two dozen communities nationwide that ban gas-powered blowers, which some defend as time-saving necessities and others decry as polluting irritants. Monday’s council action capped at least five years of often-contentious debate over whether, and how, to rein in the devices.

Jerry Marino, a local business owner who opposes any prohibition, said prior to Monday’s meeting that he was prepared to start gathering signatures seeking a referendum should the council ban the devices.

“We have our own campaign all set up,” he said.

To qualify for the ballot, a referendum measure would need signatures from at least 640 registered Sonoma voters, representing 10 percent of the electorate in town.

The deadline to get on the ballot for an upcoming regular election is April 20, according to City Attorney Jeffrey Walter.

If successful in acquiring the signatures, the ban would then be suspended until the election, provided City Council members don’t rescind a ban at that point. However, Walter said the council isn’t obligated under the law to immediately put the issue to voters even if opponents gather the required signatures.

“The law says they have to, but it doesn’t say when,” Walter said.

Council members rejected an outright ban on all leaf blowers in October and unanimously decided to put the issue to voters. But they backed away from that effort earlier this year after Cook dropped his support for a ballot measure.

He sided with Gallian and Agrimonti after a vocal group of residents who had strongly opposed the use of all leaf blowers said it would support a partial ban covering gas-powered blowers.

About 30 people addressed the council Monday, with the vast majority expressing opposition to a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. That included about a dozen men who said they work as gardeners and rely on the devices to assist them with their work.

“We might have to charge higher or we might lose our jobs,” said one man.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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