After decades of battling regional efforts to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, a coalition of local gardeners, many of whom reside in Redwood City, has reversed course.
Led by Juan Carlos Prado, 47, a native of North Fair Oaks, the Bay Area Gardeners Association (BAGA) plans to publicly endorse a new state law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 9, that will phase out the sale of the gas-powered machines.
“We feel as an association that there is a feasible and practical solution to eliminating gasoline leaf blowers,” said Prado, current board president of BAGA. Battery-powered blowers are now powerful enough, he noted.
The nonprofit, whose mission emphasizes educating “gardeners and landscapers on better and environmentally friendly practices,” includes more than 300 members Peninsula-wide.
“Technology has advanced in the over 20 years since this issue came about in the community,” he added. “And we have taken an official stance that we are in favor of eliminating gasoline leaf blowers.”
Among the dozens of bills that Newsom signed in his final action of the legislative session is Assembly Bill 1346, which was authored by Assembly member Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, and which directs the California Air Resources Board to adopt regulations by July 2022 that would prohibit the sale of new "small off-road engines" — a category that includes gas-powered leaf blowers, generators, pressure washers and chainsaws — by 2024.
In making a case for the bill, Berman cited their environmental impact. In a June speech on the floor of the Assembly, he noted that daily emissions of air pollution from small engines are projected to surpass those from passenger cars this year.
"These emissions worsen air quality and negatively impact human health, causing asthma and lung disease and other awful health impacts on landscaping professionals who breathe in exhaust day in and day out," Berman said.
For cities like Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Menlo Park — all in Berman's district — a ban on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers is far from new. Los Altos banned them in 1991, becoming the first jurisdiction in the area to do so. Menlo Park and Palo Alto followed suit in 1998 and 2005, respectively. However, Menlo Park's law was subsequently overturned in a referendum led by BAGA and supported by the community, which voted in favor of the gardeners. Palo Alto's, which applies exclusively to residential neighborhoods, has not been vigilantly enforced. No bans have been proposed in Redwood City, which is home to many of BAGA’s members.
The son of Mexican immigrants and a founding member of Latino Focus, Prado believes that the original bans, which were meant to address noise and air pollution, prioritized the needs of homeowners over their lower-paid workers.
“We were just the easy prey for city council members of Menlo Park and Palo Alto,” he said.
According to Prado, over 90% of BAGA’s members were, and still are, Hispanic, and they believed that the effort led by Menlo Park’s entirely white city council members was unfair and racially motivated.
“We felt that the city council proposal on a ban was discrimination on Latino workers,” he said.
“They were proposing eliminating an essential tool without having any kind of alternative for it,” he added. “I mean, the city council's solution was to use brooms and brushes. Or, wherever possible, use electric blowers.”
But, he added, “Not all homes or businesses have outdoor outlets where gardeners could plug in electric blowers.”
Prado worried that an all-out ban would “make delinquents out of hardworking people who only wanted to keep their city clean.” So rather than eliminate gasoline blowers, he supported replacing old machines with new ones and educating their workers on using them more efficiently.
In fact, as an act of goodwill, he and other members of BAGA piled up a bunch of their old machines in front of Menlo Park’s city hall.
“We took several hundred of the oldest, loudest leaf blowers and decided to buy the quietest ones,” he said. “Just to demonstrate to the residents and the city council that we understood these machines were a nuisance and we’d do everything we could to reduce that.”
Since then, he said, technology has improved, making battery-powered machines much more feasible and even desirable.
The new state law casts a broader net than these local, leaf blower ordinances. It applies to all devices with small off-road engines under 25 horsepower. Unlike the local ordinances, which were prompted primarily by noise complaints, the state law focuses on greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts. The bill's passage makes California the first state to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers.
According to an analysis of AB 1346 by state Assembly staff, the shift could pose significant challenges for some, particularly in the commercial sector. The research notes that for residential uses, rechargeable electric lawnmowers, leaf blowers and string trimmers have been "available for years and have significant market share." For commercial users, however, "there is very little market for zero-emission equipment as today's technology is relatively expensive and requires multiple batteries and/or frequent recharging and replacement."
The findings are a concern shared by BAGA, which plans to request funds from the city to subsidize the purchasing of new leaf blowers.
“The vast majority of our members are small business operators, small family-owned businesses,” said Prado. He added that most BAGA members “don't have the financial means to do this equipment upgrade,” which could cost up to four times as much as their gas counterparts.
Supporters of the bill hope to address the slow adoption of zero-emissions equipment by the commercial sector by adopting the new restrictions and appropriating $30 million in the budget to help small businesses make the switch. Minutes before the Senate voted 21-9 to approve the bill on Sept. 8, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, argued that the law is necessary to foster the state's transition to cleaner equipment.
"Unless we put pressure on the industry, they're not going to take the steps necessary to get these better lower-emission or zero-emission generators onto the market and widely available for folks," Allen said.
Not everyone agrees. Opponents of the bill argued that the legislation would impose unreasonable restrictions on landscapers while doing very little to address climate change. Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, suggested at a Sept. 8 hearing on the bill that a switch to electric equipment would make generators less reliable.
"When the power is out, how are you going to charge your battery so that you can supposedly keep your refrigerator on?" Dahle asked during a Sept. 8 hearing on AB 1346. "We're converting everything to power because, for some reason, this Legislature hates fuel, which is very sustainable, easy to access and, when the power is off, you can still use it."
Assembly member Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, similarly argued that the bill would cause more harm than good. He characterized the bill at a Sept. 9 hearing as one that would create "severe regulations for the businesses that use this equipment without providing anywhere close to adequate funding to support the rebate programs necessary to support this transition."
"Many of these businesses are small and minority-owned and are predominant professions for Latino communities involving landscape, tree care and construction," Mathis said, before the Assembly approved the bill by a 49-21 vote.
Supporters of AB 1346 counter that the bill does not regulate the use of existing gas-powered equipment but only purchases of new equipment. They also note that the bill includes exceptions for farmers and emergency responders. Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who worked with Berman to advance the bill and secure the funding, argued in a statement Monday that the bill would help address both the environmental and health impacts of small gas engines.
"It's time we phased out these super polluters and help small landscaping businesses transition to cleaner alternatives," Gonzalez said in a statement Monday.
Berman's bill garnered support from organizations, such as Sierra Club California, Union of Concerned Scientists and Coalition of Clean Air. Bill Magavern, policy director for Coalition for Clean Air, said in a statement that AB 1346 will "protect Californians' health by cleaning up the shockingly high pollution from small off-road engines like leaf blowers and lawn mowers." Daniel Barad, policy advocate with Sierra Club California, said the bill will "curb toxic pollution in California neighborhoods by addressing emissions from leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other small off-road engines."
"This bill is another important step towards breathable air and a livable climate in California," Barad said in a statement.
For his part, Prado agrees. “We're the first ones to admit, this is a very annoying machine,” he said.
“After over 20 years of taking a stance of being adamantly against any type of ban on it, we are now in favor of eliminating gasoline leaf blowers. With the caveat that municipalities provide financial assistance to gardeners so we can transition over to battery-operated equipment.”
BAGA plans to issue an official statement by the end of the week.
This story includes reporting from the Palo Alto Weekly.
Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse, a local news site dedicated to providing accurate and timely news to the Redwood City community. Leah can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.