Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpBold prediction: Last week’s arrival of the autumn solstice will bring spectacular colored leaves. They eventually will turn brown and swirl to the ground. And be chased away by roaring suburban leaf-blowers.

Handy modern convenience or threat to our health and tranquility? Arlington joined the brewing national debate this spring when several locals wrote to the Sun-Gazette demanding that the county board take action to muffle the leaf-blower’s infernal racket (which too often erupts when I’m having dinner out on the porch).

“Leaf-blowers are literally blasting our green neighborhoods to death,” wrote Ann Marie Thro. “In addition to noise, leaf blowers release more air pollutants than cars and blow at hurricane strength, disrupting natural habitat and killing the azaleas and ground covers that make Arlington beautiful.”

A rebuttal came from Jeff Walyus, who argued “the difference between using a rake versus a leaf blower is spending a few hours versus an entire day of clearing leaves out of my yard.”

True, for professional yard maintenance crews, arriving for a job equipped with an arsenal of gas or electric leaf blowers makes for rapid cleanup and packing in more customers per day.

But too many do-it-yourselfers have become dependent on the labor-saving devices without much thought to the downsides. At my local swimming pool, I once watched a staffer rev up an ear-drum-popping blower to chase a single leaf 30 feet across the pool deck. (Without missing a beat in my conversation, I bent over and snatched the offending leaf, so the staffer could attend to tasks of a higher order.)

Policywise, the debate over whether to ban leaf-blowers above a prescribed decibel level has raised challenges to public health science, the impact of neighborhood organizers and the interests of manufacturers.

My day-job colleague James Fallows of the Atlantic magazine has spent years agitating the D.C. government for a crackdown like numerous other jurisdictions have implemented. He writes of a famous study that found that “running a leaf blower for half an hour was, in terms of certain kinds of pollution, the equivalent of driving a truck for thousands of miles.”

My Arlington boyhood chum Steve Dryden, an environmental restoration specialist, warns that the blowers stir up dust that can worsen human allergies while also disrupting the “natural leaf litter” of microorganisms important to the food chain.

You could point to some impact by protesters in the fact that equipment makers such as ECHO, Black and Decker and Hammacher Schlemmer now compete to offer the quietest blower. Inventors, meanwhile, are improving less-polluting battery-powered models.

But I wouldn’t count on an Arlington ban soon. “The county is constrained by Virginia’s Dillon Rule legal framework, under which Arlington can pass ordinances only in areas where the General Assembly has granted clear authority,” I was told by Mason Kushnir, aide to board chair Katie Cristol. She reminds us that Arlington’s noise ordinance allows their use only between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. weekdays, or 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. weekends and holidays.

Meanwhile, critics can fall back on moral suasion. Yes, there are hardship cases—folks with huge tree-covered lawns.

But this fall, please consider de-leafing your yard in a revolutionary way. You can soak up fresh air, slow the world down, stretch your back muscles. All while honoring the Amish simplicity of a maintenance-free, tried-and-true, rake.


I continue to sidestep hardworking construction crew to squeeze in my regular workout at the dusty Ballston mall Sport & Health.

Last week, both the health club and developer Forest City gave up on their posted goal of completing renovations by September. “Stores at Ballston Quarter will begin to open on or around Oct. 25 and will continue to open on a rolling basis over the next nine months,” I was told by spokeswoman Jill Fredrick. Same one-month extension for Sport & Health.

Better be worth the wait.