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The Leaf Blower Wars

As autumn sweeps across the land, so does the grating whine of leaf blowers—and in some cities, peace-seeking citizens are campaigning to restrict use of the devices. New Yorker writer Tad Friend infiltrates both sides of this conflict in the Oakland bedroom community of Orinda, California, emerging with a vivid and often hilarious portrait of a pitched turf battle in which many of the combatants harbor a certain strain of righteousness. Neat gardens and trees are a treasured status measure in Orinda, writes Friend:

Any challenge to a property’s routine maintenance thus becomes a threat to self-worth, net worth, and an entire way of life. A lot of people here will give up their leaf blowers only when you pry them from their cold, dead hands (or, more precisely, from their Hispanic gardeners’ cold, dead hands).

The story describes a faceoff between a leaf-blower opponent and a gardener over the gardeners’ allegedly illegal blowing on a holiday—an encounter that a neighbor, Susan Kendall, captured on video:

Kendall pulled over and got out her Flip camera to videotape the encounter, and the gardener advanced on her, with his blower roaring, saying, “Get the police, I want to hear this from them!” By the time the police arrived, however, he had thought better of his position and peeled off in his truck.

The tale suggests that leaf-blower ordinances based on sound levels are impossibly hard to enforce, whereas demonstrating a public health threat—from particulate matter blasted into the air, for instance—is more enforceable but tougher to pull off. That hasn’t stopped an increasing number of cities—including, very recently, Coral Gables, Florida—from moving toward leaf-blower restrictions.

In the meantime, blower foes can humiliate their enemies by citing a city of Los Angeles study that “showed a grandmother using a rake and broom took only 20 percent longer to clean a test plot than a gardener with a blower.”

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