Each year Napa Climate NOW! honors Napa County residents, businesses, elected officials and agencies who have made a significant contribution through their local climate actions.

This year’s Climate Champions award in the community group category goes to five Yountville residents who joined together to make Yountville a quieter, healthier, and more climate-smart town by persuading the town council to adopt an ordinance prohibiting the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers.  

The five are: retired teachers Janet Clare-Gotch and Sherry Breitigam, retired real estate broker Doyaline Marchbanks, Master Gardener Penny Proteau, and well-known textile artist Marico Chigyo.

“Most people aren’t aware how polluting these are,” said Clare-Gotch. “The pollutants are concentrated in the immediate area.  One gas leaf blower can affect the air quality for 7-14 homes.” 

According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the smog-forming emissions from just one hour of gas leaf blower use are equivalent to driving a Toyota Camry 1100 miles – the approximate distance from Napa to Albuquerque (https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/msprog/offroad/sm_en_fs.pdf).  And in the South Coast Air Basin in and around Los Angeles, CARB estimates that total smog-forming emissions from small off-road engines (SOREs), the type used for lawn, garden, and other outdoor power equipment, will exceed tailpipe emissions from passenger cars before 2022. This is because auto emissions are decreasing with the adoption of electric vehicles and cleaner engines.  CARB is currently working to both reduce SORE emissions and to incentivize use of zero emission equipment.

Yountville’s new ordinance is consistent with its 2016 Climate Action Plan, which specifically recommended action to ban gas leaf blowers, for an estimated reduction of the equivalent of two metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.  Both Clare-Gotch and Breitigam served on the Yountville “Go Green” Team, the group of residents responsible for the Plan.

Doy Marchbanks got the ball rolling for an ordinance to achieve that goal.  Marchbanks was concerned with the public health effects of gas leaf blowers while viewing the plumes of dust and particles blown into the air for all to breathe.  Researching pollution caused by gas leaf blowers, she learned that the particles can travel long distances and can contain toxins such as dust, mold, and fecal matter.

Noise pollution is another reason that more than 80 California cities have laws banning or restricting the use of gas leaf blowers (https://hdsupplysolutions.com/s/leaf_blower_noise_regulation).  Battery-powered leaf blowers are as low as 56-65 decibels, compared to 102-115 decibels in gas-powered leaf blowers. Sustained noise over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage to the operator.

In fact, it is the operators who are exposed to the highest levels of pollutants, and the most noise and dust.  These factors raise the risk of complications and death from COVID-19 according to a report from Quiet Communities (https://www.quietcommunitiesinc.org/articles-quiet-outdoors/leaf-blowers%2C-pollution%2C-and-covid-19). 

The campaign for a town ban was truly a grassroots effort.  Marchbanks talked to two friends from her yoga class. They each brought a friend, and the group, who casually refer to themselves as “The Yountville Five”, was formed.  Marchbanks said, “I surrounded myself with smart, environmentally conscious women.”  The group then spent the next year researching the impacts of gas leaf blowers and how other communities had dealt with this.

The goal of the Yountville Five campaign was to “have eco-friendly landscape services and to strike a balance between unfettered leaf-blower operation and a more sane approach.”  They met with Town Council members, Town Manager Steve Rogers, and the Yountville Public Works Director, Joe Tagliaboschi.  Tagliaboschi had promoted other actions to make the Town’s operations more environmentally friendly, such as a glyphosate ban and the use of recycled water.  He called the Town’s switch to battery powered leaf blowers “a no-brainer.”

“It’s important that we set the standard and set it high,” he said.  “We need to lead from the front.”  He had his staff demo different models. 

The other alternative is the old school solution of raking.  Clare-Gotch contacted Sterling Stevens, who owns “Get Reel, eco-conscious lawn care”.   Stevens, a Sonoma resident, started his business, which uses only battery-powered or human-powered equipment, when the City of Sonoma voted to ban gas blowers.  He was surprised that no one at the time had a business offering clean, green lawn service. 

“I started with a manual push reel lawn mower, and now use battery-powered zero emission equipment,” Stevens explained. He started working for people who pushed for the Sonoma ban and now has clients in Napa and Yountville, including Clare-Gotch.  “My goal,” said Stevens, “is to make neighborhoods quieter one home at a time.”

The Yountville Five presented on the negative environmental impacts from gas leaf blowers to the Town Council in October of 2019.  They also submitted a petition signed by over 200 residents encouraging the Town Council to enact a gas-powered leaf blower ban.  One year later, on October 6, 2020, the Town Council did so unanimously.  The new ordinance will go into effect on July 1, 2021, giving the town time to educate residents and yard care businesses on the new requirements and to establish a program to provide financial assistance to help businesses change over equipment.

As Proteau sums it up, “I think the manner in which we approached the problem, by speaking with each council member, doing the research, and making the effort to submit a presentation with a solution, led to the adoption of the ban.  The Council was happy that we had done so much of the legwork.”  

Actions you can take:

  1. Attend the 2020 Climate Champion Award Ceremony, via Zoom on November 14, 11am-1pm and meet all the Climate Champions.  See https://napa.350bayarea.org/ for details.
  2. Learn more about zero emission yard care at https://www.getreellawncare.com/#:~:text=those%20%E2%80%9Cbenefits%E2%80%9D.-,Get%20Reel!,something%20other%20services%20can’t

Chris Benz is a retired winemaker and founding member of Napa Climate NOW!. Napa Climate NOW! is a local non-profit citizens’ group advocating for smart climate solutions based on the latest climate science, part of 350 Bay Area. https://napa.350bayarea.org