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The city of Newton is at war — over leaf blowers

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
A leaf-blowing landscaper kicked up a tornado of leaves in Newton.

NEWTON — In his 14 years of public service, Ted Hess-Mahan has dealt with no shortage of controversial issues. There have been tax overrides and zoning reform, sanctuary city status and affordable housing.

But the Newton city councilor isn’t sure any one of them has generated quite the contentiousness now overtaking his community — brought on by the blast from leaf blowers.

Tempers have been building for more than a year, residents and city officials say, but with fall leaf cleanup in full swing in a suburb that prizes both pristine lawns and tranquility, incensed neighbors are turning on one another — in at least one instance, allegedly, with violence. Police have been overrun with complaints, to the point they’re worried about their ability to respond to more serious crime. Meanwhile, a few residents have taken to the streets to confront yard maintenance companies they believe are in violation of a recently imposed noise ordinance.

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Last year, as the debate began to crescendo, the tensions disturbed even the normally sedate proceedings of city government, as Newton’s elected representatives struggled to find a compromise amid growing unrest.

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“We had to have the police come to our committee meetings,” said Alison Leary, a city councilor who has led a push for leaf blower regulations, “because the landscapers tried to intimidate our little 5-foot-1 chair.”

Anyone who has had a peaceful afternoon shattered by the jet-like roar of super-powered leaf blowers — especially when deployed by bands of workers alighting on others’ lawns — might relate to the outrage.

And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was attacked by a neighbor last week, apparently in a dispute over his yard, can certainly attest to how intense landscaping rage can become.

But why now? For one thing, hiring out lawn maintenance has never been more popular. According to the National Association of Landscape Professionals, landscaping is a roughly $80 billion industry experiencing steady annual growth. For another, equipment has become ever more powerful — prompting various towns around the region, including Cambridge and Brookline, to begin looking at ways to minimize the noise.

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But in well-to-do Newton, where as many as 70 percent of homes employ a landscaping service, according to one estimate, things have quickly gone off the rails.

On one side are residents, even some who hire landscaping companies, who complain that the heavy-duty, gas-powered blowers favored by lawn-care companies kick up dust, pollute, and make life miserable.

On the other side are the landscapers, who counter that they’re simply using the most effective tool available and that the less-powerful models they’re being pushed to use take significantly longer to complete a job, resulting in higher prices.

“It’s like mailing a letter when you could send an e-mail,” said Jon Sneider, owner of the local landscaping business Jon Sneider Corp. “We’re going back in time.”

Blower-related bickering is nothing new in Newton. It was nearly a decade ago, after all, that Hess-Mahan — in an effort to demonstrate just how unbearable the noise can be — famously carted a blower into the aldermanic chamber at Newton City Hall during a meeting and fired it up.

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But the conflict began anew a couple years ago, when Karen Bray, a 66-year-old physical therapist, decided to take a stand.

In 2015, she and her grass-roots group, now known as Newton C.A.L.M. (Citizens Against Leaf blower Mania), pushed the City Council to examine the issue, much to the chagrin of landscapers, and the council’s programs and services committee held a series of meetings, giving various stakeholders the opportunity to present their perspectives.

Things came to a head in January, when, during an impassioned City Council meeting that stretched until well after midnight and featured a standing-room-only crowd, the council adopted an ordinance aimed at curbing some of the perceived nuisance.

Under it, leaf blowers would be required to have a manufacturer’s label proving they don’t exceed 65 decibels, a step down from the 77-decibel blowers used by many landscapers. And between Memorial Day and Labor Day, only electric leaf blowers would be allowed.

If the goal was to put the issue to bed, however, the effect has been precisely the opposite.

Since the ordinance went into effect in February, police have fielded some 350 leaf-blower-related complaints, and members of Bray’s group, having successfully lobbied for new restrictions, have begun confronting landscaping companies they suspect of skirting the rules.

On a recent afternoon, Bray steered her bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle through Newton’s residential streets, in search of the telling rumble of an illegal blower.

“Excuse me,” she said, stopping at one point to approach a pair of landscapers working in a residential yard. “Are you aware of the leaf blower law in Newton?”

Admittedly, her approach has rubbed some the wrong way. In the past year, Bray said, she has been bullied, threatened, and dubbed “Wrinkle-stiltskin.” Not long ago, she received a confusing late-night call from someone inquiring about buying a leaf blower. Turned out, a fake ad had been posted on Craigslist: Leaf-blowers for sale, contact Karen Bray.

She actually got a kick out of that.

Landscapers, though, have been less amused, likening the group to a band of vigilantes — a claim bolstered by an incident in August in which a landscaper reported being assaulted by a resident who was attempting to take photographs of the company’s equipment.

The resident denied getting physical, and no charges were filed. But the episode has done little to cool tempers.

The hope on the anti-leaf-blower side is that — as with the smoking bans of the 1990s, which were initially met with pushback from the restaurant industry before becoming the widely accepted norm — the industry will eventually begin to shift, producing blowers that are more noise- and environment-friendly.

Until then, however, both sides appear to be digging in for a battle that has no signs of abating.

“The landscapers have [pretty much said], ‘You’re going to have to take this leaf blower out of my cold, dead hands,’ ” said Leary, the councilor. “And that’s what we’re doing. The blatant disregard for the law, I’m not going to put up with.”

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.