Metro, Newton

Newton Evaluates Policing of Leaf Blower Ordinance

The Newton Programs & Services Committee agreed to remove the responsibility of enforcing the leaf blower ordinance from the Newton Police Department, as part of changes proposed by Councilor Bill Humphrey to address compliance and enforcement of the ordinance. 

The Newton City Council revised the leaf blower ordinance in 2017, banning all gas-powered leaf blowers from Memorial Day through Labor Day and requiring leaf blowers to be 65 decibels or lower. The ordinance was the product of two years of discussion in response to residents asking the council to address noise and air pollution. 

“What is proposed in the ordinance is to clarify the ordinance in terms of several factors that we hope will enhance its enforcement and also minimize the amount of police work that’s necessary to do the enforcing,” Humphrey said. 

Currently, both the Newton Police Department and the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) are responsible for enforcing the leaf blower ordinance. 

“We recognize that this is not a long term solution, but we believe that it is a necessary interim step for now, and that it will ensure that pressure remains on both the councilors and the administration to come up with a more permanent solution,” Humphrey said. 

The committee met over Zoom on Wednesday to discuss the amendment sponsored by Humphrey. The proposed changes will now move to the Finance Committee, but a meeting date has not been scheduled yet. 

If the proposed changes are approved by the Finance Committee, the council will then vote at its next meeting on April 20. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller will have to approve the changes in order for them to go into effect. 

Councilors Brenda Noel, Pam Wright, and Holly Ryan agreed that the police should be taken off enforcement of the ordinance. Councilor Maria Scibelli Greenberg said that she is supporting the changes because enforcement has been lacking. 

Ryan said that it is time to take this kind of code enforcement away from the police. She also referenced other code enforcement responsibilities of the police, including in dog parks and regarding snow removal. 

“It’s time to take a stand,” Ryan said. “… I’m just saying that the police should not be doing this, I don’t want to see them do it, and as long as we prolong this we are never going to get this done and take these things away from the police.”

Council President Susan Albright and Councilor Lisle Baker said that they opposed the proposed changes. 

“This is a situation where in order for the ordinance to be enforced, you have to have a rapid response capability, and the only rapid response capability we have in the city that can operate 24/7 is the police enforcement,” Baker said.  

Albright echoed these sentiments. 

“We are wasting our time thinking that ISD has any semblance of enforcement of this kind of an ordinance,” Albright said. “I hope that if we intend to put any teeth into this we do not take the police out of it.”

Some of the councilors wanted to wait to discuss changes to the ordinance until the Newton Police Reform Task Force presented its final recommendations, according to Humphrey. Noel said that she cannot support police enforcement of the leaf blower ordinance because it does not follow the work of police reform in Newton. 

“It’s a trained militia that we are asking to go to people’s houses with a weapon and talk to them about a leaf blower,” Noel said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Humphrey said that it is a “ridiculous proposition” for police officers to respond to calls about leaf blowers.  

“It is also an impediment to more serious policing jobs, but the idea that we need someone to come out and respond in, you know, a matter of minutes with a gun, especially to an industry that heavily employs people of color,” Humphrey said. 

After speaking with members of the police force, Ryan said that officers don’t think this is something that should be a part of their job.  

“The police department has expressed to us previously that they believe that calling them for nuisance calls does not improve their relations with the community, it just creates further situations of frictions, where they have to go in there with a gun and get in somebody’s face about something, and, you know, ruin somebody’s day,” Humphrey said. “That doesn’t make the police more respected in our city.” 

Calls related to the leaf blower ordinance make up 1.5 percent of calls to Newton Police, according to Newton’s Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Yeo. He said that the ordinance is being enforced and that a number of warnings have been issued this year. 

“I know the police are making these calls, whether they like it or not, I don’t know and frankly I don’t care because when the community needs a job done, and we have nobody else to enforce this,” Albright said.  

Wright suggested that the city hire a code enforcer for ISD.  

Albright said that it is fiscally irresponsible to hire a code enforcement squad. Baker also said that there is not a viable alternative to police enforcing the ordinance. 

“I don’t know where you guys think the money is going to come from,” Albright said. “What are we going to give up to have a code enforcement squad?”

Humphrey interrupted, referring to Albright’s comment as“ridiculous”. Chairman Josh Krintzman intervened and said to allow Albright to finish her comment. 

Bowman said that she understands the concerns about providing alternative code enforcement, given that there are many things that need to be enforced. She said that the main concern is compliance and proposed alternative ways for residents to report violations of the leaf blower ordinance. 

“So, you know, if this passes, with the police taken out of the enforcement, you might as well have stayed home and had a nice nap tonight because this will not be enforced by anybody,” Albright said. 

The other agreed upon changes include requiring commercial leaf blower operators to have a yearly permit. If a violation occurs, homeowners will not be held responsible or subject to a fine if the landscaping company has a city permit. The committee voted for the required changes to go into effect on Labor Day.

Featured Image by Julia Remick / Heights Editor

April 12, 2021