Commercial Landscapers Seek Variance from Greenwich’s New Gas Leaf Blower Restrictions

On May 24 Greenwich’s new rules restricting use of gas leaf blowers took effect.

Fines for violations won’t be imposed until 2025.

Some had referred to a “ban,” but then the Selectmen granted a one-year variance to town departments – the equipment is mainly used by staff in Parks & Rec and DPW.

Then, on May 23, a day before the restrictions were due to go into effect, Pandora’s box opened and six commercial landscapers emerged.

During Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, six separate public hearings were opened – each reflecting a request from a commercial landscaper for a variance from the new restrictions:

Jeff Greco Landscaping, LLCM
Briggs Landscape Design
E. Anderson Landscape Contractors, LLC
Old Glory Landscaping & Property Maintenance, LLC
Roberto Fernandez Landscaping
Michael Sinisi & Son Landscaping, Inc.

Of the six, five testified in person, saying it was only fair that what’s good for the town would be good for them too.

Kate Briggs from Briggs Landscaping asked for a variance in writing so she could show a piece of paper to residents.

“The harassment behind the scenes is becoming noticeable. I’m hearing it from other companies. I’m hearing it from town workers,” she said.

First Selectman Fred Camillo said that even before the new ordinance went into effect he’d heard of landscapers being yelled at by residents.

“If someone is coming out and yelling, don’t engage. Just say, ‘We’re complying, call the police department.’  This way it doesn’t escalate,” Camillo said.

Eric Anderson from E. Anderson Landscape Contractors asked if private residents could also request a variance.

Mr. Camillo said indeed any party could request a variance but he hoped it would not happen.

“You do get this one year without a fine,” Camillo said. “You’re getting a waiver on the fines, so, in essence it’s matched up with the town now.”

Lauren Rabin said while no fines would be imposed this summer, people could still complain.

“At what point is it harassment?” Anderson asked.

“If you can’t be nice, be quiet,” Rabin said. “Everyone needs to take it down a notch.”

“We’ll get there,” Camillo said, recalling the initial negative reaction to the recycling mandate in 1991.

“Back in the 80s and early 90s I was in the waste disposal business and recycling business. People were really going crazy. Old timers in the business were saying, ‘We’re working more for less.’ …There were a couple years of uncertainty, but we got it down pat. People were fine. The businesses were protected. People were happy.”

Chris Mancini from Old Glory Landscaping & Property Maintenance said, “I’m coming to you on a bended knee to ask for permission to have a longer period because of past meetings I’ve had with the fire marshal.”

He said that the fire marshal in the town where Old Glory is based (Bridgeport) had told him he could no longer house gasoline products and equipment together with battery operated equipment.

He said that separation extended to transportation.

“When you’re asking us to use battery operated backpack blowers, according to the Dept of Transportation you cannot transfer them in the same vehicle. That’s one problem. The other problem is since we can’t store this stuff in the same facility, now, a company my size has to buy or rent another facility to separate everything so I don’t end up with $10,000 fines.”

He said for a company the size of his, it would cost between $500,000 to $750,000 to go full electric.

“And I believe that at some point we’re going to have to do that. That’s the way the industry is going,” he said. “I want people to think about putting companies out of business who can’t afford to do this.”

Mancini said his customers were in mid country and back country, on properties between 5 and 100 acres.

“How are we supposed to perform our services with this battery operated equipment that runs anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours? It’s impossible,” he said.

Mancini said he currently stores 30 gas cans in a fire-proof containment system, and in another building he will store the battery operated equipment and extinguisher systems.

He added that he was concerned about potential power outages that would make him unable to charge batteries.

Roberto Fernandez, who has spoken numerous times over the past year against the gas leaf blower restrictions, said the transition was difficult, landscapers were being harassed, and he sought a variance in writing.

He said insurance was also an issue, and compliant entailed paying for separate storage facilities and fire prevention equipment.

“We need time. A year is not going to be enough,” he said. “My yard does not have electricity.”

Fernandez said he had a six-year lease on a parking lot to store equipment and that the landlord declined to add electricity to the lot.

Further he said some customers declined to let him charge batteries on their properties.

“Now we’re going to have to pay for a generator to charge these batteries on the road,” he said.

“We are here because of all the out-of-towners landscapers – all these fly by night, gypsies working until 7:00or 8:00pm, and starting at 7:00am on a Saturday or Sunday – and they don’t care,” Fernandez said.

During the public hearing, Sophie Koven from Quiet Yards Greenwich said there had been public debate for 18 months and that since the new ordinance was passed many landscapers had reorganized their businesses and contracts.

“Many have purchased new electric blowers, some landscapers have invested not only in  new equipment, but also in advertising and business promotion for their new quieter practices,” she said. “Now, five landscapers out of hundreds in town have asked for a variance form the summertime ban.”

She said variances for just five out of hundreds would unfairly privilege those businesses to the detriment of the other landscapers and residents, and open the door to a flood of variance requests from other landscapers, construction companies and garbage collection companies who would also benefit from a variance from the town’s noise ordinance.

Svetlana Wasserman urged the Selectmen not to approve the variance requests.

She said while there were no penalties this summer, it did not mean that gas leaf blowers could be used after May 24 or that people couldn’t make complaints.

“There are no penalties, but that doesn’t mean that you can use then. Nor that homeowners or neighbors are wrong for asking landscapers to stop using that equipment. Homeowners may call the police, and the police may come out. And the police will ask you to to stop using your gas leaf blower. Just because there is a year before any fine are levied, that does not mean you are not expected to comply.” – Svetlana Wasserman

As for the suggestion of increased costs alleged based on Dept of Transportation rules or insurance requirements, Wasserman suggested that the Selectmen ask for proof that was the case.

“There are 32 neighboring towns that have had these rules in place, some for over a decade. Not a single landscaper has gone out of business for having to comply with the rules.”

“I urge you not to override the rules passed by the RTM. I also urge you not to give an unfair advantage for these five landscapers over the dozens who are already making this change,” Wasserman added.

She noted that the QYG social media feed features photos of landscapers already working with electric equipment in Greenwich.

Mr. Camillo said that after May 24, if a residents sees a landscaper with gas equipment they can call the police.

“Do so in a very polite way. Just call the police so it doesn’t escalate. We don’t need people fighting,” he said.

Jane Brash from QYG said they’d heard from numerous residents that their landscapers had already converted to electric.

“They are very happy and were shocked how much quieter it is,” she said.

She added that Greenwich Country Club had switched to electric equipment, as well as several private neighborhood associations that decided to enforce the ordinance.

“So even if landscapers ask for a variance, they may have to use electric in certain neighborhoods anyway,” Brash said. “If you pass this variance, it’s going to create chaos and confusion.”

As for the requests for variances from the commercial landscapers, Democratic Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigan said, “We cannot even consider a variance unless there are overriding health and safety considerations.”

Town attorney Barbara Schellenberg confirmed there was a high standard for granting a variance.

“There has to be an overriding interest effecting the public safety, health and welfare. You made those specific findings for the town based on the evidence presented.”

Several people from Quiet Yards Greenwich pointed out the landscapers already have a year of no fines and had known about the new rules for months, given the RTM voted overwhelmingly in favor back in January.

“All of these arguments have been made to the RTM and have been litigated there, and I don’t think they should be re-litigated here,” said Svetlana Wasserman of Quiet Yards Greenwich.

Second, Wasserman said, any claims of batteries posing a health threat should be considered in context of the dozens of studies about health impacts of leaf blowers.

“It is shocking to listen to people argue that a battery is somehow more dangerous than a machine filled with gas, stored in a wooden shed,” she added. “We will send you these studies which talk about the 30% of fuel released from gas leaf blowers as fine particulates that float in the air for hours and pass through our blood stream and into our lungs directly that are linked to cancer, to heart disease. The noise that is linked to hearing loss.”

Lauren O’Keefe, a member of the town’s Board of Health, testified that in 2023 her board declined the QYG proposal because “the studies were not scientific enough.”

(That was when the noise ordinance was under the purview of the Health Dept and Health Board. Many will remember that the Board of Health in December 2023 voted to repeal the town’s noise ordinance.  In absence of a town ordinance – until the RTM took action in January, voting to restore the town noise ordinance with an amendment to restrict the usage of gas-powered leaf blowers at specific times of the year – state law prevailed, which was much more generous. People could blow from 7:00am am until 9:00pm “provided the noise discharged from exhausts is adequately muffled to prevent loud and/or explosive noises therefrom.”)

In response Elizabeth Dempsey from QYG wondered what scientific entities would have satisfied the Board of Health.

“It would be great if you could point out what scientific entities would satisfy the leadership from Greenwich – be it the Board of Health or not. If you provide scientific studies from NIH, from the CDC, from World Health Organization, from Harvard School of Public Health, from the EPA, let me know why those standards don’t work for you? Whey they’re not considered ‘scientific enough,'” Dempsey asked.

The hearings will remain open until the next Selectmen meeting in 3 weeks (June 13).

When the close the hearings, Selectmen have 10 business days to issue an opinion.