On a sweltering afternoon in late August, many a Lexington street is quiet and still – the picture of idyllic suburban summer.
But wandering among the carefully tended lawns north of the Battle Green, an unmistakable drone punctuates that quiet. It rises to a roar until the machine that has become such a catalyst for recent political discourse and action in town comes into view: a gas-powered leaf blower. Actually, two of them, tidying the few brown leaves scattered around a small parking lot into piles from the backs of two sweating landscapers.
In theory, gas leaf blowers should not be running anywhere in Lexington during August because of a bylaw passed by Town Meeting last year and upheld by a townwide referendum in March. Part of that bylaw imposes seasonal restrictions on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers beginning this year, limiting their permitted use to March 15-May 31 and Sept. 15-Dec. 30 for spring and fall clean-ups. But this part of the bylaw got little attention relative to the hotly debated phase-out of gas-powered leaf blowers, which will prohibit all gas-powered leaf blower use beginning in 2025 for commercial landscapers and 2026 for town residents. Lexington was the first community in Massachusetts to pass such a phase-out, but other communities have previously passed comparable seasonal restrictions.
Lexingtonians who supported the bylaw decried the noise, environmental and health hazards posed by gas-powered leaf blowers, as previously reported. But for Junior, one of the landscapers in that parking lot, this machine is nothing more or less than the engine for his livelihood. Junior has been in the United States about eight months working for a greater Boston landscaping company on an H-2B visa, he said, and will return to Mexico after a few more months of work. He is identified by his first name to protect him from professional repercussions.
“With electric blowers, you can’t move the leaves,” he said. “The people don’t want [us] to use these ones. But how [do] I do the work? How do I do the job? With a rake?” He chuckled at the idea. (As previously reported, electric leaf blowers are used by some regional companies, but remain weaker and less common than gas leaf blowers.)
If Lexington customers don’t want landscapers using gas-powered leaf blowers, he said, “the people need [to] pay more money, because it’s a lot more time.”
Junior works “everywhere” around the region, he said, and Lexington is the only place where he has heard of this restriction. That said, Brookline is another nearby community with seasonal and noise restrictions on GLBs, while Newton sought to eliminate the machines by regulating noise levels – but ran into trouble with enforcement.
According to Lexington Police Chief Michael McLean, since May 31 of this year, “the Dispatch Center has received 22 complaints of landscapers violating the seasonal ban on gas powered leaf blowers” as of Aug. 31. This does not include additional complaints received via email and phone calls to other administrative lines, he added, and “other town offices and departments have also received calls regarding violations as well.”
For the Police Department, “I would not say the complaints have been a burden,” McLean wrote in an email, “but these types of calls sometimes have to wait for a response until an officer is freed up from an emergency or other priority call.” Sometimes that means offending landscaping crews have already departed the area, and “the officer then has to do their due diligence to determine the residence and company involved in the violation and then make the proper notifications.”
The number of complaints reported to the Town’s Police Department certainly doesn’t represent all violations this summer.
Nick Afshartous is a Noise Advisory Committee member – the only one at the moment, since all four other members resigned earlier this summer and have yet to be replaced. In his neighborhood alone, Afshartous has observed violations of the seasonal restrictions multiple times this summer; just this week, a landscaper ran a gas leaf blower “just for a minute or two.” Previously, “maybe a month or so ago, when it was much longer, I wrote a note to my neighbor, just to inform her of the restrictions. So they might have cut down because of that,” he said.
But cognizant of the challenges Newton police officers faced in enforcing their city’s bylaw, Afshartous has deliberately avoided calling the police when he has observed violations this summer, opting for direct communication with his neighbors instead. “I think there’s better ways to try and handle violations, at least initially,” he said.
When the Noise Advisory Committee first drafted the bylaw, they discussed concerns about potential enforcement challenges at length, Afshartous recalled – especially because they were aware of what had happened in Newton. “You don’t want to have the police officers having to spend a lot of time on enforcing something like this,” Afshartous said.
Afshartous thought the phase-out ban would be easier to enforce, and easier for residents and landscapers to digest, than seasonal restrictions because “it would just be a lot simpler….when you have restrictions that are part of the year, it’s just harder for people to keep track of and know when [the] restriction is in effect.” For now, “I think we’re in a period of transition, where there are still landscapers and residents who are just not aware.”
From the complaints the LPD has received so far, McLean wrote the department has “discovered that there are a lot of landscaping companies working in Lexington and the majority…are from outside the town.” The violations do not appear to be concentrated among a few outliers, he wrote; on the contrary, “the complaints have come from a wide range of different companies and locations all over Lexington.”
So do these violations stem primarily from a lack of awareness, or disregard for the new rule?
Like Afshartous, McLean believes a lack of awareness is the bigger issue for now. “The officers responding to the calls mainly feel the violations are unintentional,” he wrote. He observed that the landscaping season was already well underway when the bylaw went into effect; “it was difficult to get an involved educational campaign established before crews started working in town,” he wrote.
He’s aware that doesn’t apply across the board: “I am sure there are a small number that know it is a violation and continue to violate it,” he wrote, “but I am confident to say the majority are not aware when they are doing it.”
As a result, the police view their goal as spreading awareness to homeowners and landscapers alike about “the By-Law, restrictions and possible penalties,” McLean wrote.
That’s been a focus for the Town’s Public Information Officer, Sean Dugan, as well. The Town has conducted outreach to the community by posting on the homepage of the Town website, creating a dedicated webpage about the bylaw, posting on social media, sending out PSAs to the Town’s News and Alerts email list and including it in the weekly Link to Lexington newsletter multiple times, Dugan wrote in an email.
Additionally, Dugan used the Noise Advisory Committee’s list of emails for local landscapers, which they compiled during the lengthy bylaw development process, “to send an email alerting them of the passage of this bylaw.”
McLean explained that when a complaint is reported or an officer observes a violation, an officer speaks with a member of the work crew and homeowner and documents the names and companies of landscapers “to verify they are not a repeat offender.” In most cases, people say that they are unaware of the bylaw and will comply in the future, he wrote. Dugan has also developed informational cards that can be distributed to violators.
According to the bylaw, failure to comply can result in fines for property owners and landscapers alike: no more than $50 for the first violation, $100 for the second violation and $200 for the third and each subsequent violation. McLean wrote that “our primary goal is to obtain voluntary compliance” and have homeowners help hold their contracted landscapers accountable.
“Residents wishing to report a violation should contact the Police Department’s non-emergency number at 781-862-1212 when they see a violation in progress,” Dugan wrote. “Contacting them via email or the next day makes it difficult for officers to connect with those who are in violation.”
As of Sept. 15 – next Thursday – landscapers will be officially permitted to use gas leaf blowers again. McLean wrote that “it is important to develop and begin a comprehensive educational campaign that can take place over the winter months so everyone will be on the same page” moving forward.
Afshartous suggested physical flyers could be an especially helpful tool for getting the word out about the bylaw – including as tools that neighbors can distribute to one another in the case of violations.
“Lexington is a community with a large percentage of residents and business owners who utilize landscaping companies,” McLean wrote. “It is important that everyone is well aware of and compl[ies] with all of the aspects of the By-Law.”