OP-ED: Proposed Noise Ordinance Effectively Bans Lawn Mowers, Leaf Blowers

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The Proposed Noise Ordinance Effectively Bans All Residential and Commercial Leaf Blowers/Lawn Mowers & Will Have Significant Other Negative Effects on Watertown Residents

On September 12, 2017 (yes 2017), the Town Council was asked to consider an issue brought up by the then Health Director regarding the Town’s noise ordinance. The reason? A resident, who lives next to the Commander’s mansion, claimed the landscaper who cuts the grass around the mansion was violating Watertown’s noise ordinance by cutting the grass too early in the morning. The Health Department disagreed. They reasoned that the noise ordinance, in its current form, exempts domestic lawnmowers and although the ordinance did not explicitly mention exempting commercial lawnmowers like the ones used outside the mansion, such a strict interpretation would likely place all commercial landscaping equipment in violation of the ordinance and result in a complete ban of such activity (which
clearly was not the intent of the ordinance). Following a meeting of relevant department heads, some language was developed to clarify this position in the ordinance and allow for better enforcement. It was that language the Town Council was asked to consider.

This issue has since snowballed from a small and narrow language consideration to a completely unnecessary overhaul that will have serious implications on hundreds, if not thousands, of residents. The purpose of me writing this article is to highlight the most egregious of these proposed changes. They are as follows:

  1. MOST Currently Owned lawnmowers and ground maintenance equipment will effectively be ILLEGAL To Use (as well as any equipment that emits noise above 80 dbA):
    1.1. The proposed ordinance says: “Noise associated with power equipment, ground maintenance equipment used by residents or commercial enterprises such as lawn mowers and power saws is permitted between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on weekends and legal holidays, provided that the cumulative noise level of all work on one site at any one time shall not exceed 80 dbA, as measured at a distance of fifty (50) feet from the source.” (dbA is the most widely used sound level filter).
    1.2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists lawnmowers as producing between 80-85 dbA. As the average mower, not to mention a commercial lawnmower, is above the proposed legal threshold, this equipment would now be illegal to use in Watertown. Other commonly used equipment above 80 dbA includes wood chippers, chainsaws, blenders, trimmers and vacuums.
    1.3. When I inquired about how folks could take care of their lawns if much of their current equipment is now illegal, the committee seemed to indicate that folks could purchase new, quieter lawnmowers and equipment instead. If you think that the committee made a proposal for the Town to pay for the replacement cost of your now illegal equipment you would be wrong.
    1.4. There is also no exception for commercial landscaping companies. If their equipment is over 80 dbA it would now be illegal. The joint committees did not hear from any local landscaping companies as to how this will effect their Watertown operations or if the costs to replace equipment will be passed onto the homes they serve.
    1.5. According to Police Department records, in the entire calendar year 2017 there were only 6 calls related to landscaping noise. In 2018 there were 7. I think these numbers speak to whether or not this is a widespread issue in Watertown warranting such a drastic change in policy.
  2. MOST Currently Owned Leaf Blowers will effectively now be ILLEGAL To Use:
    2.1. The proposed ordinance caps noise from leaf blowers at 65 dbA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists leaf blowers as producing between 80-85 dbA. As the average leaf blower is above the
    proposed threshold, this equipment would now be illegal to use in Watertown. As mentioned before, there was no discussion about the Town compensating folks for the cost of getting new, compliant leaf blowers.
    2.2. There are a number of Watertown based landscaping companies who may be substantially effected by these changes and likely have useful information about the equipment and operations we are regulating. The committees
    reached out to zero of them for input.
  3. Reduced TIME When Ground Maintenance Equipment Can Be Used:
    3.1. For those who do have the quieter equipment, the proposed ordinance allows using such equipment between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. on weekdays and between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m on weekends. However, it then adds
    another section that says if the equipment is being used before 10:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. it has to conform to more strict noise level rules, which the ordinance sets at 60 dbA (for more than 10 minutes in residential areas).How noisy is 60 dbA? The CDC notes that a normal conversation, people simply speaking aloud to each other, is usually 60 dbA (public forum during one of the meetings was measured by someone in the room at a little above 60 dbA).
    3.2. So unless your equipment is quieter than a normal conversation, it will not be permitted between 7:00-10:00 a.m. or 6:00-8:00 p.m.
    3.3. Again, in 2017 and 2018 combined there were only a total of 13 calls to the Watertown Police Department about this issue.
  4. No More Outdoor Home Events – Residential Noise Capped between 55-60 dbA:
    4.1. The proposed ordinance caps permissible noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in residential areas (more than 10 minutes long) between 55-60 dbA (depending on duration). Again, the CDC notes that a normal conversation is
    usually 60 dbA.
    4.2. A quick example. My wife and I have a small front deck that we like to eat dinner on, weather permitting. Under the proposed ordinance revisions, having a conversation during dinner would technically be in violation of the proposed noise ordinance. The same would likely be true for anyone hosting a BBQ or having company over in any outside space. If you’re sitting on your porch with a fussy, crying baby for more than 10 minutes, technically you are violating the noise ordinance.

Does anyone in your house play a musical instrument or maybe you have an animal that makes noise? If this ordinance passes as presented, I’d start looking at dbA levels or make sure you’re friends with your neighbors.

A couple more quick examples:

  • There is a very charming family that lives near the high school who I observed playing music on their lawn during the early days of the pandemic … while the music was lovely and pleasant … they would now be breaking the noise ordinance
  • Remember the tuba player? That guy is awesome … would have also been violating the noise ordinance
  • Live next to a dog park? Presumably the police could be called anytime there is over 10 minutes of noise

As the tone of this article likely indicates, I find all of these proposals ridiculous and not supported by any objective analysis or reason. Under the proposed rules, countless Watertown residents will be affected. To be strictly compliant, it is highly likely you will either have to adjust your lawn equipment (without compensation), adjust your maintenance schedule, evaluate anything else in your house that makes noise or do all three. Commercial enterprise will be faced with operational constraints the Town Council doesn’t understand and didn’t try to understand. And the origins of this issue and Police Department data both indicate noise is not a nuisance in Town and especially not one that warrants such drastic action to be taken.

Even more though, this ordinance is unfortunately a perfect tool for disgruntled neighbors to use against one another to weaponize normal, everyday occurrences. Even though it would now be illegal, I don’t foresee any of my neighbors calling the police on the local landscaper who has a mower above 80 dbA or on a crying baby or on my wife and I eating dinner on our porch. And likewise I could not care less when there is noise coming from pool parties, leaf blowers or outdoor movie nights. But that can’t be said for all neighborhoods in Town. I fear if this ordinance is passed as written it will have no impact on amicable neighborhoods like mine (who, though we are technically violating the ordinance, it will never get reported) but will be the major reason for contention elsewhere.

Further, cities around the country are looking for more ways to not force the police to respond to non-emergency, mundane situations. To that end, a great way to reduce calls to law enforcement would be to not have ordinances on the books that criminalize common, everyday activities.

Part of the reason that I am writing this article is because the full Town Council has not voted on this issue yet. There is still time to be heard. The Council will be voting on this on Tuesday, March 30th at 6:00 p.m. Please come
out (via zoom) and be heard.

In the meantime, if anyone would like to contact the full Town Council with your opinions of this matter, the email address is: towncouncilors@watertown-ma.gov

Ken Woodland
District D Town Councilor

24 thoughts on “OP-ED: Proposed Noise Ordinance Effectively Bans Lawn Mowers, Leaf Blowers

  1. How about Town activities? Such as football, baseball, and other activities at Victory Field or other play areas! How about parades? With Covid thre have been many drive bye done for birthdays and other milestones. How about outdoor political rally’s? The law must cover the entire Town with no loopholes!

    But then I’m in agreement with the writer. Sometimes there shouldn’t be such laws!

  2. Thank you for this Kenny. Very helpful and disappointing to see what’s in this ordinance. Also of note, in the last election, The Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association put this very question to the then candidates. Below their responses:
    Would you vote to enact a noise ordinance that included banning leaf blowers?
    Tony Palomba NO
    Gannon-NO
    Donato NO
    Bays-YES

    I trust the At Large Councilors above need look no further than their conscience to be their guide.

  3. A simple question, what do other towns with noise ordinances(and most likely much more support/resources to look into this subject than Watertown) have in their noise ordinances ? I believe Newton has one, Somerville too(even more dense and larger). I’m certain we could come to a decent noise ordinance for our city too. As the 8th dense city in MA, we really need one. We may not agree on the details but let’s get one and see how it goes(or have a back up plan to pivot to). Common sense may dictate what works and what doesn’t.

    • Of course Newton and Somerville have the noise ordinances they do… they’re both overrun with and governed by liberal lunatics without a shred of common sense.

      Same goes for Cambridge and Brookline. Do we REALLY want to follow their examples with this overreaching nonsense? Why do I suspect this is being pushed mostly by new comers here that want to unnecessarily change longtime community practices to suit their preferences? We ARE a densely populated urban community. The things that are being complained about are and SHOULD have been expected when people chose to live here.

      This whole brouhaha is best summarized as a ‘first world problem’ that saner people point at and laugh about. It would be foolish and unwise for the Town Council to support any proposed ‘noise ordnance’.

      • Couldn’t agree with you more. I have a small lawn mowing business with just myself doing the lawns. When they put the ban on backpack blowers in Newton I told my Newton customers I would not be able to do fall clean-ups for them because of the ban and all of them were up in arms and practically begged me to still do theirs; everyone is so self centered. I did those yards and took the risk of possible fines but where were these people when they could have spoken up. Now they are jeopardizing my business; someone who doesn’t even live in their town; so they can have their lawn look nice?

      • Alan,
        Your response is not helpful and is yet another ‘great’ response as is the letter from a person who I actually like, Ken. I’m 100% disappointed with Ken, given this is an outlandish and ridiculous letter. I understand part of his frustration given I’ve been to the meetings but we are all better than this and we can/should actually create something that works well for both viewpoints. No one will be 100% happy but Watertown will be better having done an ordinance. More rhetorical commentary not helpful:< Please go to the meetings and respectfully present your viewpoints..this is how government should and can work.

  4. Almost impossible to enforce.Who would we call, the police? The police won’t do anything unless they see it for themselves. I have been told the police won’t accept video evidence, they will tell you to file a complaint in Waltham court. As far as neighbors go a lot of us have been putting up with noise above 80 db, even the airplane noise from Logan is above 80db at times and when you report it nothing changes. We need better leadership in Watertown to be able to solve peoblems like this, much better.

  5. thanks Ken, I was watching some of these meetings. what I watched I believe didn’t show the depth of this, I know i’m not a fan of 4 backpacks going at once in a small yard, usually some communication could resolve this so there is a better understanding not crazy rules. thanks John Labadini got a good laugh on reply. great archives!

  6. Thanks for this post.
    I have a snow blower that I hate to use because it is so noisy. But I have to use it because I can not shovel the big stuff. I have been looking for a solution but there is still nothing that can be found unless you want to spend like money is no object. Even then the reviews are not so great and the noise is still a problem.
    My neighbors hire guys with Extremely noisy blowers and mowers. If there are quieter ones they too may be unreasonably expensive so I accept it. If you are going to have an ordnance you should know how reasonable it will be for people to follow it. Cost and availability may be an unreasonable barrier to success.

  7. very happy with the good news. Landscape people always breaking the curfew. On the weekends they have lawn mowers, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers going as early as 7 am.

  8. This is completely misrepresenting the new noise ordinance. Councilor Woodland, our own agent of “no”, has sat on that committee and done nothing but vote no on any changes that were proposed. The committee looked at noise ordinances from many towns around us, including Newton and Somerville, both of which are much more limiting than ours. Changes proposed will require some new equipment, but nothing commercial companies don’t need if they want to do business in towns around us. At noise ordinance meetings, councilor Woodland wasted much time arguing that we won’t be able to have a conversation on our front porch anymore because technically voices can rise above the dBA threshold. Let’s be real. Councilor Woodland is using supercilious and exaggerated arguments to try to get people riled up—but it’s fake news. The real news: the new ordinance is reasonable and will result in a better environment.

  9. Ken – Thanks for your well written report on this subject. I strongly agree that thirteen complaints over a two year period does not require such draconian measures. In addition to all the examples of normal activities that would exceed the proposed noise ordinance it’s probably a good thing that the Town is building new schools as we speak. I presume that most construction related activities would also violate “noise above an average conversation” and therefore technically be in violation, too. What started out as a leaf blower ordinance has turned into an overly broad and restrictive proposed law which would literally be impossible to enforce. Common sense may dictate what works and what doesn’t, but I would suggest that it also dictates that this ordinance will create unnecessary burdens on both residents and commercial businesses.

  10. This new ordinance is NOT draconian. It did NOT “start out as a leaf blower ordinance” (and in fact considers noise of all kinds). It will NOT ban normal activities. Compare it to surrounding communities and you will see that we are in line or less restrictive than they are. Our noise ordinance is extremely outdated. Councilor Woodland would like to make no changes at all and is making gross exaggerations in his shameful op-ed.

  11. The serious effects of noise on people’s health are real and well-documented. Gas powered mowers and leaf blowers are extremely noisy (as well as unhealthy for the operators due to breathing the exhaust fumes). By all means, debate the issue, let each side be heard. But do not dismiss the indisputable medical research on the deleterious effects of noise. Last, thanks to Steve Goodwin, above, for noting the noise from Logan. Perhaps you have to live in the “wrong” neighborhood, but the roar of departing aircraft following precisely the same route directly overhead all day, into the night, and into the next day–and getting nowhere with complaints–is extremely frustrating. Our elected officials know, but if you can’t fight City Hall, you’re not going to get anywhere with the Federal Aviation Administration.

  12. If there is going to be an ordinance about noise from anyone mowing and blowing their lawn and yard either by the hone owner or landscaping companies. Just think about the conditions of the curb appeal of property around the town. Yes there is noise for maybe 10-15 minutes, but the results are providing beautiful yards.
    Then if there is a noise ordinance it should also include inside noise from residents that run, jump, or walk around their apartment stomping at each step which can last for hours. I would rather hear a blower or lawn mower for 10-15 minutes, than listen to heavy foot steps stomping around over my head for hours. Is this noise also against the ordinance? If not, it should be included. There are lot of adults that do not know how to live (walk) in multi family units weither it be a condo or an apartment. These people should be held responsible for their lack of concern for their neighbor too.

    • Just to be fair here – Imagine 15 minutes for each yard around you – at completely different times. For me (I live in S-6 – I have ~14 yards of abutters or abutters to abutters), that turns into several hours of disturbance over the course of the week. If the whole town could get all our yards done, or just street by street done in 15 min blocks, I think we could deal – but that is not what wil lever be the case.

  13. Mr. Woodlawn,
    Despite your highly colored and dramatic rendering of the situation, I very much doubt that your esteemed colleagues designed the noise ordinance with the notion of cracking down on residents’ use of their existing lawn equipment, nor of making outrageous demands on commercial landscaping companies.
    That said, I am certain that no one, including you, actually anticipates inter-neighbor warfare, a steep decline in town-wide curb appeal, or an uptick in calls to police, and I’m calling you out for that rhetorical nonsense.
    Speaking of rhetoric, even if you aren’t a councilor-at-large, isn’t it a just a wee bit impolitic to paint your personal neighborhood as somehow more pleasant and/or more reasonable than other un-named neighborhoods where someone would call the police on someone else because they’re sharing a meal with friends on a front porch? Shame on you.
    But this is a serious topic, and what dismays me the most about your letter is your attempt to claim that there isn’t a real call for noise reduction based on the number of complaint calls—are these even documented?—made to the City Hall. I only attended one Town Meeting on this topic, and it was packed to the gills with people who very much want to see some rules/guidelines put into place to stem the increasing noise.
    I attended that meeting because I’m someone who has to get up very early, and therefor has to be in bed, asleep, by around 9 pm. I didn’t attend any other of the meetings for that same reason. Up at 4:30 am means in bed at 9 pm, Town Meetings go too late for me most of the time.
    Speaking for myself, I would be thrilled if my neighbors just knew that doing noisy lawn work or home construction projects after 8 pm was not allowed. Would I call the police on them, with or without a noise ordinance? Of course, not! But just like all the people disturbed by noise whose complaint calls were never logged because they were never made, nor would I feel empowered to say something to my neighbors. The people NOT COMPLAINING– because they have no recourse and besides really don’t want to make a stink– are our neighbors too, good neighbors who just want to get on with their lives and get along with the people live around them, peacefully.
    I’m going to finish this by saying that I strongly suspect that if/when you take off your no-noise-ordinance-earmuffs for a good listen, you would have to agree that our streets are getting more noisy, not less, and that we can all work together to make Watertown, already an incredibly nice town, full of incredibly nice people and good neighbors, even nicer.

  14. I have lived here for over 35 years and would love to know just where all of this noise is that seem to bother some others with extremely sensitive ears. Am I one of the few who find it too quiet here which makes me long to hear an airplane fly over the house going south or west just to break the monotony?

  15. This is great the leaf blowers are to loud and are bad for the nerves go back to using a rake. If you work a night shift you cannot sleep through it they start early in the morning for hours to time to ban them permanently

  16. This is ridiculous nonsense! I live in a part of Watertown where we have to deal with homeless drug addicts camped out around our building! We also have loud motorcycles and cars that speed along Greenough Blvd with no regard for this neighborhood! If you are going to deal with noise, then deal with that kind of noise and not a lawnmower that is run for 10-15 mins. Don’t vote for this! Thank you!

  17. Why is this being considered with so few complaints per year? When does 6 or 7 speak complaints require an impact on all residents? You’d think we have higher priorities. This screams personal agenda from those that proposed it. There are serious issues to debate in efforts to make this town a better place for all residents. This isn’t one of them.

  18. I live on Common st will this stop trucks going up and down the hill that make noise or how about my neighbors dog barking!! This is insane our properties will start to look like hell and the cost of upkeep will skyrocket!

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