By Thane Grauel

Kristin Scheeman, District 9, a proponent of the leafblower ordinance.
Kristin Schneeman, District 9, a proponent of the leaf blower ordinance.

WESTPORT — After two years of discussion, the Representative Town Meeting passed a measure to restrict the use of gas-powered leaf blowers during certain days, hours and times of the year.

But the ordinance, passed 22-9 by the RTM early Wednesday, was a far cry from the strict restrictions first proposed.

There will be no long arm of the law, police officers scribbling violation tickets, as had once been considered.

Instead, violators face little more than a finger-wagging from Town Hall, perhaps receiving educational information mailed from the Conservation Department.

The new ordinance sets parameters for when gas-powered leafblowers can be used, and when they cannot be, mostly focused on summer, May 15 to Oct. 15.

It also encourages the changeover to electric/battery-powered units.

The measure had a bumpy ride during the months it was reviewed at committee meetings and during public hearings.

The session overnight Tuesday into Wednesday also had some charged moments.

As RTM Moderator Jeff Wieser, District 4, calmly observed at the end of the lengthy meeting, “This is really as contentious as we’ve gotten this whole past year, but … I know you all did a lot of hard work on this and we’ve got a lot of hard work coming up in the next couple of weeks, so thank you, thank you.”

Only about 200 municipalities nationwide have enacted various measures to restrict the use of the gas-powered blowers, which are not only very noisy but pollute the air at a rate many times that of today’s automobiles.

As to whether the RTM’s action is a groundbreaking first step for the environment or a legislative stumble that dilutes the meaning of ordinances and hurts small businesses, opinions vary.

“I am begging you to vote yes to this ordinance,” said Tiffany Weitzer, a member of the public who spoke at the meeting.

“Do we want to be seen as ineffective and inept when the tide is obviously turning on gasoline leaf blowers in particular? This ordinance is an opportunity to show how much Westport is committed to achieving its Net Zero 2050 Initiative.”

She said she has two children, one born seven weeks ago.

“I’m doing my absolute hardest to make sure they have clean air to breathe, pollinating butterflies to chase, and a back yard to play in in summer that is free from the constant noise of a pointless machine,” Weitzer said.

The months of committee hearings and public information sessions led to a series of compromises and revisions to the ordinance.

Along the way town agencies — the Department of Public Works and the Parks and Recreation Department — were exempted from the measure. Punitive enforcement of the rules by police was dropped and replaced by an educational approach to compliance administered by the Conservation Department. Blackout periods for landscapers and residents were adjusted, and a stepped rollout over several years was included.

Many members of the public spoke during the lengthy session, most in favor of the restrictions.

But others, mainly owners of small landscaping companies, spoke against, citing increased costs, what they said are inferior battery-powered machinery and the need to keep Westport customers satisfied with tidy lawns.

One of the landscapers who spoke was Tony Palmer of TP Landscaping.

“The expectations of our clients, and what we expect of the equipment we have, are to perform our work for our clients, is not met right now,” he said of battery-powered gear.

“The houses we take care of, multimillion dollar estates, their expectations are a pristine lawn. We’re smart enough to not blow away the ecosystem, we’re not going to blow away every bit of soil.”

Jeff Cordulack of Organic Ways and Means, an environmentally minded landscaping service.
Jeff Cordulack of Organic Ways and Means, an environmentally focused landscaping service.

Jeff Cordulack of Organic Ways and Means, a company he said has two trucks and all-electric machinery, spoke in support.

“All of this equipment works,” he said. “I care for 20-acre lawns, for million-dollar customers, and they’re perfect.”

“This is a situation of many people never trying the equipment and then coming in and saying it’s not possible, and then doing a half-researched Google search on the cost of things and then scaring you,” Cordulack said.

He suggested enacting the measure, and then getting back to work to make it stronger.

The usually genial Jimmy Izzo, D-3, took issue with comments made by one of the green landscapers who have built businesses on a no-gasoline model. Whether it was Cordulack or one of two others that spoke wasn’t clear.

“For the gentleman who insulted my cousin up there [Palmer], stay in Greenwich, stay in Rye, I really don’t like you coming to our town and saying things about our landscapers and hard-working people that we are,” Izzo said.

Jimmy Izzo, District 3, had issues with the leafblower ordinance, and what he said were condescending comments from out-of-town businesses.
Jimmy Izzo, District 3, had issues with the leaf blower ordinance, and what he said were condescending comments from out-of-town businesses.

He said his is a family of immigrants, “and we work our butts off.”

“I thought you were very rude and condescending with your stuff, so please, if you want to push your business of green, and Mojo Green over there wants to push his, go get ’em. Put your fliers in mailboxes, go make it happen, it’s a free country.”

Izzo, like a few other commenters, said the measure isn’t much of an ordinance.

“What it is is a suggestion,” he said. “It doesn’t have any teeth in it.”

Seth Braunstein, District 6 and chairman of the Finance Committee, which voted down the version of the ordinance it reviewed 1-4, said the ordinance should be abandoned and replaced by a sense-of-the-meeting resolution, which would take effect immediately and carry as much weight.

“I think we could have come to a conclusion that I bet every single RTM member would agree with, and certainly all the people that you heard from the community tonight would agree with, through the forum of a sense-of-the-meeting resolution,” Braunstein said. “We probably could have accomplished it in an hour or two instead of a year or two. We could probably get to a point tonight, in less time it will take us to get through …”

Wieser broke in.

“I have 10 minutes I believe,” Braunstein said, turning and pointing at the moderator.

“No, no, you’ve got plenty of time, but we’re talking about this item, we’re not talking about …,” Wieser responded.

“As am I, as am I Mr. Moderator,” Braunstein interjected. “I am talking about what we are doing here tonight.”

“I want to talk about what we’re doing, not what we should have been doing,” Weiser told him.

Braunstein then said he proposed abandoning the ordinance proposal, and moving on to a sense-of-the-meeting resolution. He said market forces drive such decisions.

“Every single homeowner, every single business owner in Westport has the ability to make a decision about how they would like their property to be cared for,” he said. “You could easily make a determination that you would prefer a green approach. And you could vote with your feet. You could find someone you believe has an acceptable methodology that reflects your belief about what is appropriate.”

“No one is forcing you to use a gas-powered leaf blower,” Braunstein said.

Two amendments were floated.

The first was by Andrew Colabella, District 4, to delay the summertime gas-powered leaf blower restrictions from 2024 to 2025. Landscapers and representative organizations had asked for more time to let technology catch up to their needs.

There were several comments, but it was voted down 12-19.

Wendy Batteau, District 8, then requested that warnings regarding lithium-ion batteries, like those she said the federal government requires, be part of the ordinance.

It was seconded by Braunstein, a clear opponent of the ordinance, but crashed quickly 23-8.

“Absolutely shocking,” Batteau, who attended via telephone, could be heard saying halfway through that vote.

Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.

To see the latest version of the ordinance, click below: