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The Sound and the Fury : When Neighborhood Activists Tried to Outlaw Noisy Leaf Blowers in Los Angeles, the City Council Found It Had a Highly Emotional Issue on Its Hands

November 23, 1986|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

The thing that strikes people when they meet Elmer (Lindy) Linberg is that he doesn't look like someone who spent 37 years in the FBI dealing with hijackings, bank robberies and foreign counterintelligence operations. He's too soft-spoken and unassuming--more like Jimmy Stewart playing a college professor. In fact, it is that very diffidence that made him such a reasonable and effective spokesman for last summer's drive to ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers from Los Angeles. The problem was, the issue churned up so much bitter passion that, by the time it reached the City Council, diffidence and reason were almost beside the point.

For Linberg, the leaf-blower issue first arose in the winter of 1984 in the usually peaceful streets of Roscomare Valley, a well-maintained and comfortable upper-middle-class neighborhood between Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive, just east of Sepulveda Pass. As president of the Roscomare Valley homeowners' group, Linberg spent most of his time mediating minor disputes: a dog sneaking in a neighbor's cat door, a vintage actress building a room addition too close to the street, a pediatrician holding loud parties in his hot tub every night. But that December, people began calling Linberg to complain about leaf blowers--that they were a deafening nuisance that plagued shut-ins, drowned out telephone conversations, asphyxiated joggers and blew dust on neighborhood children.

On April 20, 1985, Linberg wrote to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, asking him, on behalf of the Roscomare Valley Assn., to address this "quantum leap in noise level" by drafting an ordinance to ban leaf blowers from the city.

Personally, Yaroslavsky said, he had little love for the machines: "The noise and fumes are debilitating." On the other hand, he hadn't gotten many complaints about them, and he didn't feel that, in comparison to such issues as South Africa or nuclear disarmament, they were a pressing concern. Besides, he said, it was possible that he would bring up the subject only to discover that no one else on the council would see it "as a sufficiently important issue to do something about."

Throughout summer and fall of 1985, Yaroslavsky didn't take a stand. Then, in December, he replied to a question from a Santa Monica Evening Outlook reporter by saying that leaf blowers weren't really an issue. Whereupon his constituents flooded him with letters: "What do you mean, 'It's not an issue'?"

Those letters, and continuing pressure from Lindy Linberg, finally inspired Yaroslavsky to act. In February, 1986, he made a motion before the City Council proposing to prohibit the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers in residential areas of the city.

The response, he would later say, was "incredible." No piece of legislation he had sponsored had engendered as much enthusiastic support. "I got 150 letters--from every part of town," Yaroslavsky says, "and it just kept snowballing."

On June 6, after two lengthy hearings before Councilman Ernani Bernardi's Public Health, Human Resources and Senior Citizens Committee, the measure came before the City Council for a vote. Although a majority of the city's gardeners are Latino, few of them showed up for the meeting. Instead, the Southern California Gardeners' Federation Inc., whose members are almost all of Japanese ancestry, filled the council chambers with about 150 middle-aged men--all dignified, serious and neatly dressed in work clothes. For sympathetic onlookers, it was easy to envision these people as men who, with infinite patience and ancestral knowledge of the soil, turn the city green with thriving plants. To the less sympathetic, they were hard-nosed businessmen who in some cases earn $60,000 or more a year, drive Mercedeses and own four-unit apartment houses in West Los Angeles.

The council, not wanting to make a hard choice in the face of such unified opposition, sent the matter back to Bernardi's committee with instructions to come up with a compromise.

The problem was that neither side thought a compromise was necessary. Advocates of a ban argued that blowers are so incredibly loud (as much as 100 times louder than the city's 65-decibel noise standard) that it is impossible to ignore them within three city blocks. Beyond the volume, they said, the devices have an angry, high-pitched "snarl" that seems to come through the walls and reverberate in one's head.

Nor are these merely the objections of people with over-refined sensibilities. According to Edward Stainbrook, a USC professor emeritus of psychiatry who specializes in stress management, many people react to the sound of a leaf blower the same way they react to someone screaming at them: angrily and defensively. To them, Stainbrook says, the noise is a "calculated insult." At the same time, Stainbrook says, the operator may hear such noise as the satisfying sound of work in progress. Far from disturbing him, it gives him "a sense of power and mastery of the situation."

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