Column: An idea not worth blowing away yet

As the ever-expanding use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers — with their attendant noise, dust, and substantial pollution — has become an increasing problem for communities all across the country, Greenport Village’s recent decision to shelve consideration of a local law restricting the use of such blowers might be seen as a significant step backward. 

To the contrary, we should give the Village Board some credit for at least putting the issue up for discussion and listening to residents who have petitioned the board for action. In taking this single decision, the board embarked on the first and most important element of lasting and responsive community change: opening a dialogue.

Making substantive regulatory change to address this complicated issue is certainly a big step for a small village, and it’s important to remember that even great ideas rarely succeed on the first try. That said, the East End abounds with examples of good community-driven ideas that have become duly adopted laws and policies, ranging from the Peconic Estuary Program and the Community Preservation Fund to the protection of agricultural development rights.

As important as they are today, all of these initiatives were met with skepticism — even outright opposition — until data, public vigilance and courageous elected leadership were all properly aligned. It takes time, but maybe something can still happen here.

Having attended the recent hearing, I was particularly heartened by the engaged, able and articulate members of the public on all sides who came to speak their minds. As the weather warms, I expect many of the hundred or so folks who signed the original petition that got this discussion going (including some of those hearty souls who turned out for the late December hearing) will be back in greater numbers, with more questions and even more constructive suggestions for the board.

Hopefully, the board will be willing to keep the dialogue going.

To this end, it would be very worthwhile for the village to convene a working group of interested and constructive residents and stakeholders to further address the impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers, assess alternative technologies and review the changes that are being made to address this issue in many other communities. The village should require the working group to take public comment and, at a specified time, provide a report with recommendations back to the Village Board.

In the absence of such a forum for further discussion, there could be a lot of wheel-spinning, with interested parties cycling through one Village Board meeting after another, raising issues, presenting information and asking for action that the board has little time, information or inclination to act upon. As time wears on, the public may well become more disheartened and adversarial, and that can dampen the opportunity for positive change even when other constructive paths forward still exist.

In the end analysis, we believe the Village Board took the right first step in agreeing to hear from the public. Its decision to shelve the specific proposal before them was unfortunate, but understandable. Going forward, however, the true test of leadership will be determined by whether the village is willing to maintain the dialogue it opened with its residents, and whether it can formally commit itself to seriously considering further public input and not just closing the book on this topic after one cold winter night’s hearing.

Time will tell, and village residents should make themselves heard.

Bob DeLuca is president and CEO of Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy and education organization founded in 1972.