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Compromise sought on leaf-blower ban

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2012
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Arlington officials may soon seek a compromise on a local leaf-blower ban after residents voted against the new bylaw by a ratio of more than 2 to 1  in a special election.

On July 19, on a hot afternoon when the town’s polling places were open for only six hours, 5,539  people voted to overturn the ban and 2,619  voted in favor of keeping it.

But Arlington’s town counsel, Juliana Rice, has said that according to state law, at least 20 percent of Arlington’s 28,898 registered voters had to vote to overturn the leaf blower ban for the Town Meeting decision to be reversed. Under the formula, the ban’s opponents fell 241 votes short of the total needed to overturn the bylaw.

The Arlington Landscape Association, which has been fighting the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, said last week that it is seeking legal counsel about whether the town’s interpretation of the 20 percent rule is correct.

In the meantime, the Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Kevin Greeley,  said he intends to ask the board in August to form a committee consisting of landscapers, proponents of the ban, and elected officials to develop a proposal for restricting the use of leaf blowers instead of an outright ban.

“I think Arlington spoke very clearly that they are against the ban,” Greeley said after the special election.

Joseph Cusce Jr., a member of the Arlington Landscape Association, said the opponents were still deciding on their next move.

“We’re not done yet,” said Cusce. “I think we need to strike while the iron is hot.”

If the landscapers decide to ask Town Meeting to reconsider the bylaw, Cusce said, a substitute proposal would probably be brought before annual Town Meeting in the spring, though a proposal could also come up this fall if a Special Town Meeting is called.

In May, Town Meeting members voted 95-85  in favor of banning the use of gas-powered leaf blowers on private property from May 15 to Oct. 15  each year, based on concerns about noise and potentially harmful materials, such as lead or pesticides, being kicked up by the devices.

Jeremy Marin, a supporter of the ban, said there’s no doubt in his mind that the ban will be taken up by Town Meeting again.

But he said he hopes the town doesn’t have to spend the money to convene a Special Town Meeting after the expense of holding the special election to review the ban.

“The town already spent $30,000 on this, which had the net effect of no change,” Marin said.

Opponents to the ban collected more than 1,000  signatures for a petition that forced the town to hold the special election.

But Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 43A Section 10  sets out strict rules for what it takes to overturn a vote by Town Meeting through a special election. The law states that the ballot question in the special election “shall be determined by a majority vote of the registered voters of the town voting thereon, but no action of the representative town meeting shall be reversed unless at least twenty percent of the registered voters shall so vote.”

Cusce called the state law vague, and said the landscapers want to be sure they needed 20 percent of the town’s registered voters to cast ballots in favor of overturning the ban. The landscapers believe it’s possible to interpret the law to mean that if at least 20 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in a special election, and a majority of them vote to overturn a bylaw approved by Town Meeting, then the bylaw would be overturned.

The special election drew 28 percent of Arlington’s registered voters, even though it was held in midsummer, when many residents are away on vacation, and the polls were open only from 2 to 8 p.m.

Marin said he thought confusion about the rules of the special election may have also kept some voters who favor the leaf blower ban away from the polls.

But based on the results of the election, Greeley said, it’s clear that most of the town is against the ban. He said 20 of the town’s 21  precincts voted to overturn the bylaw.

Greeley said restrictions should be set on leaf blowers instead of an outright ban. He said the town could choose to prohibit use of the devices before 9 a.m.  and after 4 p.m., for example, and could prohibit the use of leaf blowers for more than 20 minutes at a time.

He said there will be time for Town Meeting to approve changes to the bylaw next spring before the ban takes effect on May 15.

Before the new bylaw can be put on the books in Arlington, it needs the approval of state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, which has until Oct. 17 to review the measure.

Cusce said he’s hoping that the strong majority of people who voted against the ban will give the state agency reason to reject the new bylaw.

But the attorney general only reviews bylaws on legal grounds, such as whether they are consistent with the Constitution and with Massachusetts law, said spokeswoman Emalie Gainey.

“Our review does not take into account policy arguments, either for or against,” Gainey said. “The policy discussion takes place at the local level when the municipality decides to adopt the bylaw.”

Several other communities in Massachusetts, including Brookline and Cambridge, already have enacted seasonal leaf-blower bans. Cusce said landscapers in Arlington will do everything they can to keep from joining their ranks.

“We’ll stay together until this issue is resolved,” he said.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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