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    In the war vs. loud leaf blowers, a strategic retreat

    A landscaper at work in Arlington, which has some limits on blowers.
    Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff
    A landscaper at work in Arlington, which has some limits on blowers.

    Jean Kempthorne used to work out of her home in one of Salem’s tightly packed historic districts. Then, she says, the roar of leaf blowers drove her away.

    She sold her house and moved to a different part of the city, where her neighbors are more spread out and the noise isn’t as deafening.

    “It was insufferable,’’ said Kempthorne, an attorney. “I couldn’t even be on the phone.’’

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    Kempthorne has tried for years to raise awareness about the noise, dust, and pollution caused by gas-powered leaf blowers, but fell short of convincing city officials that they should impose restrictions on their use.

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    Leaf-blower opponents have had limited success in Massachusetts. Brookline and Cambridge have summertime bans, and Arlington has approved some seasonal restrictions on commercial use, but control efforts have failed in other communities. Attempts to limit the blowers in Cohasset, Framingham, Marblehead, Newton, Salem, Swampscott, and Wellesley, for example, have been shot down, though Newton is reconsidering the idea.

    For now, Kempthorne is working with a Lincoln-based nonprofit group, Quiet Communities, on educating the public at large, and trying to persuade neighbors and landscapers to seek alternatives.

    “People are allergic to the word ‘ban,’ so what I’m trying to do is switch gears from greater regulation and move toward greater awareness and public education,’’ Kempthorne said. “It’s an evolving approach.’’

    A proposal for a seasonal ban was set to go before Lincoln voters at Town Meeting this spring, but a study group decided there wasn’t enough support among residents and held off, said Jamie Banks, the group’s chairwoman and founder of Quiet Communities. Her organization is trying to spread the word nationally about the adverse effects of gas-powered blowers, and about quiet, healthier alternatives.

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    Banks said leaf-blower noise at 50 feet ranges from 64 to 78 decibels. At the operator’s ear, the noise is 95 to 115 decibels. According to Dangerous Decibels, a public/private partnership that aims to reduce hearing loss, typical speech is about 60 decibels, a washing machine is 75, and a chain saw is 115. Noises that reach 85 decibels and above can be harmful to hearing, the group says. Banks said leaf blowers are particularly annoying because the noise is a high-pitched, whining drone that is continually throttled up and down.

    As for backing off on the attempt at a seasonal ban in her town, Banks said, “I think people thought we were jumping too quickly to regulation without trying other ways. We decided as a committee that it didn’t make sense at this point to do regulation without doing an educational approach.’’

    In Newton, a committee is studying another attempt to set restrictions on leaf blowers.
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2007
    In Newton, a committee is studying another attempt to set restrictions on leaf blowers.

    Banks said the committee is trying to work with property owners and contractors in the center of town, where there is a high use of the machines among businesses and housing complexes, to make it a model for the rest of Lincoln. Banks said alternatives include electric blowers and hand tools such as rakes .

    But while Lincoln residents are taking an education-based approach, Newton is revisiting the legislative route.

    Newton Ward 2 Alderwoman Emily Norton said a committee is planning to put forward a proposal to the Board of Aldermen that would either ban or restrict leaf blowers, and a public hearing could be held within a couple of weeks.

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    Norton said it’s an idea that has been tossed around for several years, but she feels the situation may be better now.

    ‘With a blower, you can put it on for one minute . . . If you did the same job with a broom, you’d be there 45 minutes.’ - Rob Carr, Landscape company owner

    “This board just passed a plastic bag ban, so it gives some indication that there are some members very passionate about environmental and health issues,’’ she said.

    Norton said more education is needed so residents can make informed decisions about landscapers, but she supports the idea of some restrictions.

    The proposal will generate opposition, predicts resident Karen Bray, who said she was pleasantly surprised that Norton and other board members appear receptive to some restrictions. Bray works at home and said her days are constantly disrupted by the noise.

    “There is a lot of push back on a ban in Newton, particularly from the landscapers,’’ Bray said.

    Rob Carr, owner of Superior Landscape in Marblehead, said the gas-powered blowers save time for his crews, and so save money for homeowners paying for the work. He said after lawns are mowed, an adjacent porch, driveway, patio, or walkway might need to be cleared.

    “There is always something that needs to be cleaned off,’’ he said. “With a blower, you can put it on for one minute at a quarter throttle and blow those hard surfaces off. If you did the same job with a broom, you’d be there 45 minutes.’’

    Carr acknowledged that blowers are loud, but said there are ways to mitigate the noise without a ban. He said he trains his employees to turn the devices off when they aren’t in use, not use them at full throttle for small jobs, and be mindful of neighbors.

    “This is one of many things that does have a decibel level, but it can be used in such a way to limit it,’’ Carr said. “Something I have done is continuously talked to my employees about . . . the appropriate use of the blower.’’

    Three years ago, Arlington limited the number of blowers that can be used at one time on a property, and banned the use of leaf blowers during the summer, but the restrictions have since been eased. Now, there are some limits on commercial use from mid-June to mid-September.

    Arlington landscaper Joe Cusce said his company has adapted.

    “It hasn’t impacted us too much,’’ he said. “Restrictions are fine as long as they are thought through and discussed by everyone who uses them.’’

    Cusce said his machines get so much use they need to be replaced each year, which means he always has the most up-to-date equipment.

    “They are being upgraded with less decibels and less emissions,’’ he said. “Every year they are getting quieter and cleaner. One of the things we’ve tried to make clear is we like things to be green. The last thing we want to do is be a detriment.’’

    Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@
    yahoo.com
    .