Photograph by Lady_Luck/Shutterstock.
We went on a walk through Wesley Heights in search of leaf blowers. It was mid-January, however, and none were to be seen—or, more to the point, heard. It could have been the weather. Our tour guide suggested that it was probably due to a ban of gas-powered leafblowers, which went into effect on 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 DCThe machine ban has been fought for many years by the group. “Someone would be over there”With a leaf blower “trying to get the leaves from under the snow.”
The spring is fast approaching and the blower battles could heat quickly. Lawn care could become more costly and more difficult for homeowners. Landscapers who do not comply with the law could be subject to fines. The enforcement of this ban is done by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. It relies 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-home-homers also agreed. This led to Quiet Clean DCThe 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 buffer period of three years to allow everyone to adjust.
Landscapers are starting to notice the changes. 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 cites the Palisades effort to change flight patterns. “I don’t set an alarm,”Orlins: “When I wake up, I can tell by the airplane noise if it’s 7 am.”
This article appears in Washingtonian’s March 2022 issue.
Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park home. Before joining Washingtonian, she was a journalist for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She studied journalism, opera and communications at Northwestern University.