South Miami sends leaf-blower ban back to the drawing board

The South Miami City Commission postponed a final vote Tuesday on a proposed ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in the residential areas of the city.

The vote came after a long discussion about how such an ordinance would be enforced.

“There’s no point in putting a law on the books until you know what the fine is, how is this going to be enforced, who is responsible for going out” and enforcing this ordinance, Commissioner Valerie Newman said.

City Attorney Thomas Pepe could be heard telling Commissioner Newman in a mostly inaudible side discussion that something would be “unconstitutional.” Pepe said Wednesday he could not recall the substance of the conversation.

Pepe also told the commission that the city already had an ordinance that prohibited using leaf blowers for blowing trash or refuse into public rights-of-way or neighboring properties.

Commissioner Walter Harris said it would be the operator, and not the property owner or lawn-maintenance company owner, who would be held responsible for violations based on how the proposal was written.

The current fine structure for noise ordinance violations are $350 for the first offense, $450 for the next offense, and $500 for any offense after that. Commissioner Bob Welsh suggested that violators be given a courtesy warning on the first offense, pay $50 for a second offense, and $100 for any subsequent offense.

Interim City Manager Steven Alexander told the commission that code enforcement has a regular patrol routine to enforce the code, and that the police would enforce the noise ordinance after business hours, similarly to how they have responded to noise complaints after business hours.

After the commission voted 4-1 to approve Welsh’s suggested fine structure, with Newman dissenting, the city attorney suggested that the commission defer the motion to allow more time to work on the language.

“We deferred the item to improve the fine structure, because right now the fine structure is, I think, a bit unreasonable,” Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “Commissioner Welsh made some sensible proposals, but getting the language right is not something that’s easy to do on the fly.”

The city of Coral Gables considered a similar ban on leaf blowers in 2010, but commissioners postponed final action, then never took up the issue again. However, the idea met stiff resistance from some Coral Gables residents, while almost all of the South Miami residents who spoke at the commission meeting were in support of the ban.

South Miami resident Antoinette Fischer, one of the main proponents of the ordinance, said after the meeting that she was “disappointed” that it was not passed, but that “It’s probably a good thing that this wasn’t ratified, because it’s really important that they get [the fine structure] right.”

Fischer, a member of South Miami’s planning board, suggested that the fines be more lenient, with perhaps a second courtesy warning, and that the owner or supervisor of lawn-maintenance companies be held responsible instead of the operator. She also hoped the next discussion about the issue would include more information about the air quality and health issues associated with leaf-blower use.

“I will be at the next meeting to support this ordinance, and I’m sure it will pass,” Fischer said.

In other business, the City Commission voted on first reading to ban helipads in the city, as well as the landing or takeoff of helicopters or other aircraft, except for emergencies.

The commission also gave final approval to an ordinance that allows for more office space in Sunset place.