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Making Room: Stop using leaf blowers

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The worst thing about working from home is being subjected to the near-daily onslaught of gas-powered leaf blowers.

The region is waking up to these noxious machines. The Arlington County Board took an important step on Tuesday, Nov. 16, when it appropriated funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to replace gas-powered landscape equipment with other options.

Leaf blowers are a drain on quality of life. Their piercing noise shatters concentration or the enjoyment of the outdoors. They spew noxious gas into the air. They can destroy insect habitats. But as a collective, we have come to expect leaf-free surfaces wherever we go. The pressure to maintain this appearance means that leaf blowers are ubiquitous.

But a movement against it is underway. I was visiting the Courthouse farmers market a few weeks ago and saw a table from Quiet Clean NOVA, a group petitioning the Virginia legislature for the local authority to regulate gas-powered yard equipment.

The person staffing the booth shared my hatred of leaf blowers. But he was surprised to hear that I live in an apartment building. He assumed that the scourge of leaf blowers only affected people who lived near homes with yards. But leaf blowers are a plight inflicted on just about anyone with a window facing outside. They are a quality-of-life concern that our leaders and property owners should take more seriously.

In my current unit, which faces a mostly landscaped and hardscaped courtyard, staff come almost every day to blow leaves from the sidewalks. In my previous building, which faced a public street and a private greenspace, crews from different landscape companies, hired by different property owners, would spend an hour or more blowing leaves and other debris from one end to the other.

Quiet Clean NOVA is hoping to change these practices, through law if necessary. They would like Arlington to join D.C., California, and other jurisdictions to ban the two-stroke engines that are the loudest and most polluting of the lawn care machinery. Because of the Dillon Rule, Arlington would need state approval to regulate or ban these devices.

We shouldn’t wait until elected officials act. We have other options to remove leaves without inflicting damage on our ears or our lungs. Electric options are quieter and fume-free. When clearing leaves from sidewalks and other hard surfaces, a sturdy push-broom can be just as effective. And in many cases, you can just let the leaves stay where they land.

Arlington is sending a clear signal by replacing gas-powered landscaping equipment. By investing in battery-operated tools, our government can showcase that we have other options. I hope that once we hear the difference as we walk through our parks, we won’t go back. The County should also make sure that the owners and managers of the buildings it occupies, such as the Bozman building, which is owned by JBG Smith, switch to other methods of clearing leaves from sidewalks. Ideally, these changes will encourage more private landscape companies to make the transition, without waiting for a ban.

We need to start speaking out about the negative impact of leaf blowers, and ask for quieter, cleaner options. You can sign Quiet Clean NOVA’s petition. You can talk to your elected representatives in Richmond. You can also talk to your building management to see if they will switch from gas-powered to alternatives. One person might not inspire change, but if enough residents ask, we can change the default in landscaping. If you use lawn equipment or employ people who do, you have the power to stop gas-powered leaf blowers from running your neighborhood.

Some nuisances of urban life are unavoidable. Leaf blowers are a menace we have the power to end with minimal drawbacks. Let’s start now.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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