Recently, we went on a walk around Wesley Heights to look for leaf blowers. It was mid-January, however, and none were to be seen—or, more to the point, heard. Perhaps that was due to the weather. But according to our tour guide, it was more likely the result of a new ban on gas-powered leaf blowers that went into effect January 1. “Last year, they would have been here making noise,” said Susan Orlins, an author who lives in the neighborhood and was a charter member of a group called Quiet Clean DC that has long sought to ban the machines. “Someone would be over there” with a leaf blower, “trying to get the leaves from under the snow.”
With spring approaching, the blower wars could soon heat up. Homeowners might find lawn care harder to come by and more expensive, while landscapers who flout the law will be dealing with potential fines. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the agency tasked with enforcing the ban, is relying on citizen complaints. As of mid-February, it had received 52 violation reports—a number likely to increase dramatically as winter ebbs.
The push that led to the law started—as such things often seem to do—on the NextDoor app. In 2015, Hal Small, a composer who lives in Wesley Heights, posted that the devices’ high-decibel whine was “a major disturbance both to my work and to my sanity when trying to relax with a walk in our beautiful area.” Other work-from-homers chimed in to agree. That led to Quiet Clean DC and, eventually, the ban. Some readers are no doubt rolling their eyes at all of this; Orlins herself admits the First World–problem factor can seem high at first glance. But the issue isn’t just volume: One study shows that the gas-fueled machines spew 300 times the emissions of a pickup truck. The DC Council passed the law in 2018 but provided a three-year buffer so everyone could adjust.
Now landscapers are starting to feel the fallout. Sam Bebawy, president of Emerald Landscaping Corp., estimates that updating his entire blower fleet would cost about $50,000—close to 5 percent of his company’s annual revenue. What’s more, the less effective battery blowers mean each job takes longer. At the moment, he’s weighing whether to stop accepting new clients in DC, where he does less work than the burbs. “We don’t want to pollute the air, we don’t like noise pollution—we’re not oblivious to that,” he says. “But there’s going to be a trickle-down effect.” Translation: Expect higher prices.
Our walk in Wesley Heights didn’t lead to any uncomfortable encounters; however, Orlins is eager to report scofflaws as soon as she spots any. What’s next for Quiet Clean DC? Orlins says the group hasn’t identified other issues to pursue, but air-traffic noise is a particular nuisance to her. She points to an effort in Palisades to get flight patterns changed. “I don’t set an alarm,” Orlins says. “When I wake up, I can tell by the airplane noise if it’s 7 am.”
This article appears in the March 2022 issue of Washingtonian.