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Will Culture Wars Doom Effort to Ban Gas-powered Leaf Blowers?

Environmental activists cheered earlier this year when City of Miami officials began reaching for what many consider the low hanging fruit of local climate policy: gas-powered leaf blowers.

“Human health, pollution, soil erosion, wildlife, noise; there are so many reasons for Miami to move away from gas-powered blowers,” said Sandy Moise, director of policy and education for the Urban Paradise Guild. “Moving to electric makes so much sense.”

But a proposal to shift away from gas-powered blowers by the city’s municipal workers, and a gradual, out-right ban by landscapers and property owners, is now in doubt.

While some opposition to a ban is rooted in economics – electric blowers are generally more expensive, at least in the short term, than their gas-powered brethren – politics has muddied the debate.

“I don’t think we have the votes,” Miami Commissioner Damian Pardo, whose district includes Coconut Grove, told the Spotlight. 

The leaf blower proposal came in response to a tweet last November from hurricane specialist and TV personality John Morales, challenging Miami officials to follow the lead of Miami Beach and South Miami, whose bans on leaf blowers went into effect last year. Key Biscayne passed a similar law in 2018. 

The City of Miami Climate Resilience Committee, an advisory body charged with drafting policies in support of the city’s 2021 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, took up the challenge, presenting the commission in March with a blueprint for the gradual phaseout. More than two dozen residents submitted comments supporting the initiative, with none in opposition.

“The overall community benefit of a transition away from gas is enormous,” said Aaron DeMayo, an urban planner who chairs the Climate Resilience Committee.

The committee’s phaseout plan was backed by data illustrating the outsized contribution of small-engines to overall greenhouse emissions. A commercial-grade gas-powered leaf blower, for instance, emits the same level of smog-forming emissions in one hour as an automobile driving from Miami to Baltimore.

At least one of the city’s five commissioners is unmoved by such stark findings. During the City Commission discussion of the proposal on April 11, District 1 Commissioner Miguel Gabela, a mechanic by training he proudly noted, staked out his position. “I don’t want to see this thing where we are imposing our will on people because the ‘left’ wants to do it. I try not to be here politically one way or another… but if your intention is to ban this in the future, completely, then I’m not for it.”

District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes, while noting annoyance at his neighbors’ decibel-busting, Saturday-morning yard-cleaning habits, found a different reason to oppose a ban: efforts by Republican state officials to discourage local laws restricting gas-powered blowers. “I don’t want to get us in trouble with something we do.”

Some supporters of the ban say Reyes and other commissioners are misinterpreting the state effort. On the legislative table in Tallahassee is a proposed one-year moratorium – not a permanent preemption – slipped into an appropriations bill this year as part of a $100,000 grant to study – and compare — the operating costs of gas and electric blowers. If signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the moratorium would be in effect for one year beginning July 1.

Republican State Sen. Jason Brodeur of Sanford, who proposed the study and moratorium, hasn’t disguised his motivations, labeling local leaf blower restrictions a form of “virtue signaling.”

Despite the uncertainty, Moise hopes the city will push forward with legislation, noting that any new local laws that predate the governor’s signature – which could be weeks away, if it comes at all — would be unaffected. Legislation could also be crafted to take effect once any moratorium expires. 

Other proponents, like DeMayo, are preaching incremental, less controversial steps toward an eventual phaseout of gas-powered blowers. Among his suggestions is a small pilot program that solicits feedback from landscapers whose transition from gas to eclectic blowers is subsidized by the city. “We have to do something,” he says.

“The city has set goals for emissions reductions and we’re going to need to do things differently to achieve these results,” he adds. “If not leaf blowers, then what else?”

During the April 11 commission discussion Climate Resilience Committee member Silvio Frank Pupo-Casco, who runs a Miami-based impact investing firm, notably backpedaled in response to questions from Gabela and Reyes, saying that a starting point may be with the city’s own maintenance crews and contractors – once the city manager provides a cost analysis of such a switch.

As for private landscapers and homeowners citywide?

“Maybe we can incentivize it, encourage it,” Pupo-Casco assured the commissioners. “But no, we can’t require it.” 

The City Manager’s office will report back to the commission after reviewing the options.

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