Opinion: Leaf Blowers Violate Town Noise Ordinance, Part 2

by | Dec 18, 2021

Editor’s note: You can find Part 1 HERE

By John Paulhus

Maybe it’s due to the lingering cultural influence of Catholicism or Christianity in general, maybe it’s due to the NFL, maybe it’s because I’m American, but, for better or worse, Sunday mornings are sacred. 

Some of us go to church on Sunday mornings. Some of us meet friends for a coffee and a donut. Some of us take Mom out for breakfast. Some of us sleep in. Some of us go to work without having to deal with traffic. Some of us take a walk around a quiet neighborhood. Some of us write, as I’m doing right now. Sunday mornings are special. As Seinfeld said, “Sunday has a feel.”

On Sunday morning, Nov. 28, in the 9 o’clock hour, one of EG’s residents fired up his gasoline-powered leaf blower. After an unusually noisy and stressful week, a different EG resident – yours truly – decided enough was enough.

I grabbed my coat and hand-held decibel meter, and went for a little stroll around the corner. There he was – around the corner and a number of houses down, walking his loud gas blower around his front yard – a neighbor whom I’ve never met. I casually walked by, glancing at my decibel meter. The reading was 80 decibels. I walked on for a bit, turned around, and doubled back, walking by again. I glanced down at my meter again: 81 decibels. 

According to the CDC, exposure to noise between 80 and 85 decibels results in “possible damage to hearing after 2 hours of exposure.” The decibel scale, like the Richter scale used to measure earthquake magnitude, is logarithmic, which means that “a sound at 20 dB is 10 times more intense than a sound at 10 dB. Also, the intensity of a sound at 100 dB is one billion times more powerful compared to a sound at 10 dB.”

As I mentioned in Part 1, the noise ordinance for the Town of East Greenwich states that the maximum permitted noise level from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in any residential district is 60 decibels. It provides no exception for lawn maintenance equipment.

To his credit, the neighbor was wearing industrial ear muffs to protect his hearing. I had my hands to put over my ears. Perhaps we both knew that gas leaf blowers are loud enough to injure their operators. Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter an operator who cares about protecting the hearing of anyone not engaged in using targeted, fossil-fuel-generated wind to move biodegrading plant matter 40 feet. 

I acknowledge, I could have waved down the neighbor and attempted to introduce myself and have a civil conversation with him. Why didn’t I? I was angry. I was anxious. I did not have the patience I otherwise might have had, mostly because it was loud as hell, and I just wanted to get home and away from the racket.

I returned home, took a number of deep breaths, and called (401) 884-2244, the East Greenwich Police Department’s general, non-emergency, phone number. (I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT CALL 911 for non-emergencies.)

“Hello. My name is John Paulhus. I live at (address x). I need to report a noise complaint. A gas-powered leaf blower is currently being operated at (address y) at over 80 decibels.”

“You have a noise meter?” said the EGPD dispatcher. 

“Yes I do,” I said with pride and confidence.

“We’ll send someone out,” said the dispatcher. 

“Thank you very much,” I said. 

“Well that’s that,” I thought. Curious to see the response, I kept an eye on the street adjacent to mine. After a little while, an officer arrived at (address y), and the gas blower noise stopped. I returned to my peaceful Sunday morning. 

Then my doorbell rang. It was an East Greenwich Police officer. I opened the door. “Hello!” I said.

This was the gist of what transpired: 

EGPD: Did you phone in a noise complaint?

Me: Yes.

EGPD: The noise ordinance does not apply to lawn equipment, it only applies to music on the waterfront.

Me (big inhale): I disagree with your interpretation of the ordinance. There are two sections. One covers the town in general. The other covers the waterfront.

(I posted the language of Section A of the ordinance in Part 1. You can find the entire ordinance, including Section B – which covers amplified sound limits specifically near the waterfront – here.)

EGPD: You should address your concerns at a Town Council meeting. 

Me: Ok, I might do that. So, there’s nothing you would be able to do right now about noise blasting from lawn equipment in a residential neighborhood on a Sunday morning?

EGPD: No.

Me: Uh, ok. Thank you for your service.

The officer departed. I went back inside. The leaf blower around the corner started up again. I was as frustrated as ever. Surely that was only one officer’s misinterpretation of the ordinance? Surely the town was not taking the official position of ignoring enforcement of an ordinance on the books?

In the days that followed, it would become clear that the town was taking the official position of ignoring enforcement of an ordinance on the books.

“Surely you can’t be serious?”

I decided to channel my frustration by emailing Town Council President Mark Schwager and Town Manager Andrew Nota. I wanted to get their takes on the situation, which I described like so:

“I don’t see any language in the ordinance that excludes residential lawn equipment from the noise ordinance, and I am concerned that the EGPD is selectively, subjectively creating such an exclusion. Or, they are refusing to enforce the ordinance.

“Either way, the EGPD’s response is unacceptable, and I ask you to address and remedy the issue.

“Thank you.”

Yes, I should have said, “please.” 

The next day, Monday Nov. 29, around 12:45 pm, I heard a sound that I could only imagine was being made by a swarm of murder hornets experiencing air rage. It was coming from the same general area that I had complained about the day before. Now on-mission, determined to get confirmation of EGPD’s noise response position, I again grabbed my decibel meter and my coat, and stepped out for a stroll. 

Nearby, I heard and saw a full commercial landscaping crew using enough gasoline-powered equipment to stage a backyard remake of Mad Max: Fury Road. They had two gas-powered leaf blowers, one riding lawn mower, and loudest of all, one fast-moving, stand-up, riding thingy that seemed to be displacing leaves, but I could not identify it. I did not have my copy of The Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Commercial Landscaping Equipment.

I looked down at my decibel meter 60 feet away from the pre-tinnitus ballyhoo. The display read 88.5 decibels. 

I returned home and called EGPD’s non-emergency line, reporting the address of the noise. EGPD’s dispatcher said they’d send someone out. 

The dispatched police officer drove by the address I reported, and parked the cruiser on the street in front of my house. The officer rang my front doorbell. A few houses away, “Immortan Joe’s Landscaping” continued their furious assault on fallen leaves with no decrease in volume. I opened the door. It was a different officer.

Lawn Equipment: BZZZZZZZZZAAAARRRRWWWWWW

EGPD (with no hint of humor or irony): What seems to be the problem?

(My jaw dropped. I pointed both of my hands in the direction of the blaring lawn equipment.) 

Me: They’re operating at over 85 decibels. The noise ordinance limit is 60. 

EGPD: The ordinance only applies to waterfront music.

This time, I was prepared. I had printed out the ordinance, and highlighted the specific lines in Section A that defined maximum permitted noise levels in residential zones between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. I handed it to the officer. 

Me: No, Section B deals with the waterfront. Section A deals with the town in general. I pointed at the lines in Section A. 

EGPD: We don’t enforce the ordinance against lawn equipment. 

Me: Lawn equipment is not listed in the ordinance exceptions. 

EGPD: We do not enforce the noise ordinance against landscapers.

I didn’t understand how 85 decibels was allowable when the limit was 60. If Mötley Crüe had been playing an impromptu concert a few houses down – as awesome as that might be – I’m sure the EGPD would have shut it down. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers and their operators, however, seemed to be attaining some kind of weird, aural, diplomatic immunity. What to do?

I again emailed Town Council President Mark Schwager and Town Manager Andrew Nota to get them up to date on the situation.

Later that afternoon, I received an email message from Council President Schwager: “I’d like to do some review on this issue with our town manager and solicitor so I can give you a solid response. Will be in touch by the end of the week.”

“Well that’s something,” I thought.

It wasn’t, as I quickly learned from a subsequent email response from Town Manager Nota. We had a lengthy, unfruitful email exchange. His final position was, “I will not be directing the police department to change their response to this activity at this point in time or consider such direction until this matter can be further vetted with the Town Council, professional staff and community members at-large.”   

I eventually received a phone call from Council President Schwager. It was courteous, yet ultimately inconclusive. Without recourse or remedy to the daily noise bombardment, my last option was to attempt to persuade the entire Town Council to take action. So, I showed up to the Monday, Dec. 13 Town Council meeting, and spoke for the opening public comment, recounting the events of recent days and alerting them to the intricacies of the noise ordinance, then said:

“It is the town’s duty, from the Town Council to the Town Manager to the Police Department, to enforce laws as they are written, not as they might wish they were written. Not as the landscaping industry, or private residents for that matter, might wish they were written. 

“If the Town Council wishes to change the noise ordinance, they may proceed with their process to do so. If that is inevitable, I hope the town moves toward a phase-out of environmentally harmful, gasoline-powered lawn maintenance equipment in favor of electric equipment – or even good old, inexpensive, virtually-silent rakes and tarps.

“But, in the meantime, as the noise ordinance says in 152-1, ‘Excessive noise is a serious hazard to public health and welfare and the quality of life in the Town of East Greenwich. Each person – EACH person – has a right to an environment reasonably free from noise which jeopardizes health or welfare, or unnecessarily degrades the quality of life.

“…. Please, enforce the noise ordinance as it is written.”

As of the day I write this, Wednesday, Dec. 15, the noise ordinance remains unenforced. You can probably figure out how I know that fact. Will the Town Council take action at their next meeting? I hope so. Perhaps the spring 2022 cleanup season will deliver a quieter experience than the fall 2021 season. We shall see. It’s up to each of us to stand up for our right “to an environment reasonably free from noise which jeopardizes health or welfare, or unnecessarily degrades the quality of life,” and I hope you do your part. If excessive lawn maintenance noise is an ongoing problem in your neighborhood: 

  1. Talk to your neighbors. Give them a heads-up before commencing loud projects. A little consideration goes a LONG way. 
  2. Consider alternatives to gasoline-powered lawn maintenance equipment (rakes, tarps, brooms, electric equipment).
  3. Report excessive noise to the East Greenwich Police Department non-emergency phone number at (401) 884-2244.
  4. Contact Town Manager Andrew Nota at (401) 886-8676 or [email protected].
  5. Contact the Town Council at [email protected].

Thanks for reading. Happy holidays.

Top photo from Dan’s Papers.

John Paulhus lives and works in East Greenwich.

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20 Comments

  1. Karen

    Let’s call the manager!
    -KAREN

    Reply
    • John appleseed

      How about Harleys with straight pipes or diesel pickups with smoke stack exhausts. Now that’s an annoyance. A gal or guy keeping a good looking yard or hiring others to do shouldn’t require a call to the PD.

      Reply
    • Belinda

      You should have talked to my husband instead of calling the police / Belinda Millette

      Reply
  2. Be nice

    I will be writing the town council on this topic. Thanking them for applying reason and common sense while treating the author professionally. That’s what we need from our elected officials.

    What we don’t need is people calling the police on their neighbors for leaf blowing at 9am. Ridiculous, what a terrible neighbor and citizen. The author chooses to live on a small parcel in a neighborhood with many families, and other attributes that contribute to congestion and noise. The leaf blowing isn’t the problem, he is. He needs to move out of that neighborhood to somewhere far away from other people.

    Reply
  3. Not karen

    Seems you need to be at church Sunday mornings yourself! And get yourself some of that god lords spirit in ya!!! Appears to me your investing wayyyyy to much energy in this issue “ you’re on a mission” so you say. I say move to the woods.

    Reply
  4. Amused in EG

    This has to be satire, right? This reads like an article from The Onion or Babylon Bee.

    Reply
  5. Kate

    Thank you again, John, for bringing this issue to light. Pretty reasonable common sense suggestions! Be considerate of your neighbors, grab a rake, and consider going electric. I will be emailing our town council members as well.

    Reply
    • Leaf peeper

      I would agree about being considerate however many cannot grab a rake- health or age restrictions may prevent this. For some of the same reasons heart attacks occur after snowfall, there probably are similar occurrences with raking.
      Electric would be ideal but the technology is not there yet; hopefully soon.

      Reply
  6. JS

    The fact that you not only own your noise meter, but use it to rat out your neighbors is bad enough. But that you are proud of that fact really says it all.

    Reply
  7. Sean

    So ridiculous. Most neighborhoods would kill to have neighbor maintaining their lawns…this guy calls the cops on them. How about walk over to your neighbor, introduce yourself, and hash out your concerns instead of relying on the govt to solve your problems. Pathetic.

    Reply
    • David Westell

      First of all let me say that my family has lived in this town since 1959 not a longtime for some of the families that have lived her for generations. This town was for the most part made up of hardworking individuals from businessmen to farmers to quahoggers that somehow always seemed to get along just fine. Not of people that purchased there own decibel meter to determine just who is in violation of a town noise ordinance!!! Are you really serious?

      I would also like to know what Mr Paulhus would suggest that my 91 year old mother do about her acre and 1/2 of leaves? Rake them? Or perhaps just leave them to blow in the neighbors yard and letting them become someone else problem? Or do as she always has done and will continue to do which is be a good neighbor and keep her yard looking as good as she can which means hiring a landscape company to remove them!!!

      I do appreciate the fact that you have pointed out the need to update or perhaps eliminate the noise ordinance in the first place because if leafblowers are indeed in violation then it certainly needs adjustment. And just so you are aware walking up to the leaf blower and claiming it’s violated your peace is idiotic. Now if your newly purchased (# looking for trouble ) decibel meter had registered a violation from your yard I’d be at least a bit sympathetic. But since you quoted Seinfeld let my quote Archie Bunker “You are a Meathead”

      I suspect that like I’ve seen many times in my life you have purchased a house in East Greenwich to benefit from its outstanding school system great community ease of access to the bay and when your children are graduated you and your decibel meter will be gone as well. Your opinion writing is absurd and laughable if you weren’t so serious about your desire to have the police stop hardworking people from cleaning their yards. Omg talk about certifiably crazy.

      This behavior is the same behavior that has been allowed to manifest itself in this town for way to long. Similar to purchasing a house near the waterfront which has had live music and bands since there has been a waterfront but then complain about the noise that is generated after you bought. Crazy that a place like the Harborside can’t host bands because of similarly self important self serving self absorbed people like yourself. Did you ever consider that your neighbor might have worked a 50 hour week maybe it was bad weather on Saturday and to be considerate of his neighbors didn’t start his yard cleanup until 9 am? No you didn’t he did it just to upset you!!! Did you introduce yourself to him? No you double backed and called the police!!!
      No you are right YOU aren’t the problem it’s the guy that’s trying his best to keep a tidy yard and be a good neighbor. Yup he’s the problem. Do everyone in your neighborhood a big favor take a good look in the mirror and be honest about what’s looking back!!

      Reply
  8. Gregory Dantas

    ‘Twas the Best of Times and the Worst of Times “ If leaf blower noise is the biggest problem we have in our town head to church and thank god

    Reply
  9. Elizabeth McNamara

    Hi everyone. Just a reminder re comments: please keep the comments on topic and constructive. You disagree? No problem. Just say you disagree and explain why if you’d like. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean the writer is a terrible person. Thanks.

    Reply
  10. Susan kurtz

    I hope This is all you have to worry about. There are thousands of people who rely on power equipment for there jobs. With all that is going on I this world, this seems quite ridiculous. I pray for you sir. Maybe an extra cup of coffee would help.

    Reply
  11. David Westell

    I’d like very much to know why my previous communication was not posted?

    Reply
    • David westell

      Sorry I failed to see it was still waiting approval

      Reply
  12. Micheline Nilsen, PhD

    It is very unfortunate that John Paulhus’ public information efforts pertaining to leaf blowers is being met with such hostility and derision.
    Leaf blowers *are* a nuisance, as are most other yard maintenance gas-powered devices. As John as clearly documented in his first communication, their unregulated engines produce more carbon emissions than automobiles.
    The noise from such devices is a constant disruption to peace and quiet: any time of day during the week by landscaping companies, and any time of day and night on weekends by home owners who do their own yard maintenance. One can never look forward to a quiet hour on one’s property, being at the mercy of whoever decides to fire up a noise maker in their yard. They can protect their ears, without advance warning, neighbors cannot.
    In this multicultural society, the concept of a sabbath respected by all is no longer an option: whose faith prevails: Christians on Sunday, Jews on Saturday, Muslims on Friday? If stores are open seven days a week, work appears to be fair game any day of the week and weekend.
    As for the role of the police, they do monitor decibel limits outside of the harbor area. Roosters, loud parties, and fireworks are routinely reported and responded to.

    The real problem is that leaf blowers, lawnmowers, etc are devices that stem from a form of landscaping prevalent since the post WWII suburban building boom. This form of land management no longer obtains in an era when climate change is threatening our planet and life on earth as we know it.

    Reply
  13. Brad

    I can’t help wonder if the noise issue is a red herring. This looks more like an indirect attempt at forcing landscaping equipment to be electric. If that’s what people want, say so. Make the case and address the cons as well as the pros. Have a vote. It won’t pass because the market and technology is not mature enough.

    Reply
  14. Katie Noble

    1. We love our Ego electric leaf blower. It’s quiet, lightweight, and works well. If you’re looking to replace or purchase a leaf blower or any lawn equipment it’s worth trying the Ego brand. We have their lawnmower (small yard only) and weed wacker and they’re all great – not perfect but perfectly usable.
    2. Bose, Sony, Beats, and others make great noise-canceling headphones. Perfect for blocking out mothers-in-law, barking dogs, and lawn equipment. Pair those with the Calm meditation app and any Sunday morning will be peaceful.
    3. The author is technically correct. Council and law enforcement should enforce laws as written and not pick and choose. Council and law enforcement should also focus on items of critical importance to the community first and other items second.
    4. Living in a neighborhood among people and animals, as opposed to an island or in the wilderness, means tolerating others in a gracious manner. It means having civil conversations and getting to know people. Morning people have been up for 2 hours by 7 am and are itching to do things – that doesn’t seem early to them. They may need a gentle reminder that they are, in fact, monsters and should then be forced to watch movies after 9 pm and not fall asleep. Most people – except narcissists – would be mortified to know they’re bothering someone else and will attempt to modify their behavior if the request is reasonable. These conversations, while sometimes difficult, are critical to keeping us civilized and connected as a society.
    5. My unsolicited suggestion for the author would be to buy the noise-canceling headphones, listen to the Calm app to get in a good headspace, then visit the neighbors to see if the author is doing anything to bother them. That would open the door to further conversations about neighborly behavior and build bridges to a better community overall. It’s a good thing I’m perfect is all I can say.

    Reply
    • Heather

      Yesssss Katie this is awesome! 😂

      Reply

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