Debate intensifies over Greenport’s proposed code changes

A proposal to lower the speed limit throughout the Village of Greenport from 30 to 25 miles per hour was about the only issue at last week’s Board of Trustees work session that didn’t generate controversy.

During a session that stretched nearly three and a half hours last Thursday, residents, business owners and villagers who rent out their homes battled it out during a trio of debates.

In addition to the pending speed limit change, the session also addressed a proposal to ban gas-powered leafblowers and another to restrict short-term rentals to a minimum of 30 days, instead of the current 14-day minimum. The leafblower ban is the subject of ongoing public hearings, as is the speed limit proposal.

In the end, the most contentious issue was banning gas-powered leafblowers.

Gerard Orientale, who owns Soundside Landscaping in Greenport, told the board that state regulation of lithium-ion batteries, which power most electric leaf blowers, is still evolving and “is really not put in place yet.”

Furthermore, he said, “the technology on the equipment is not there for a commercial application. Maybe they are for residential [use], but not necessarily commercial, to run an eight-hour day.”

The federal Department of Transportation has long regulated lithium-ion batteries as a hazardous material because their compact size creates some of the highest energy densities of any battery category, and have been known under certain conditions to catch fire.

Last year, the lithium-ion battery in a Tesla electric vehicle involved in a fatal head-on crash in East Marion burned for more than two hours at temperatures that reached an estimated 4,000 degrees, melting the pavement.

Mr. Orientale also said that landscapers are limited in the amount of gas they can carry on their trucks each day to power a generator that could recharge electric leafblower batteries.

He suggested that if the board were to ban gas-powered leafblowers, there “should be a reasonable period of transition and not a cut-off date, hypothetically, tomorrow or next week.”

Deputy Mayor Mary Bess Phillips asked Mr. Orientale “if a property owner who you’re doing a job for feels very strongly that they don’t want the gas-powered leafblower on their property, would you as a business person accommodate that?”

Mr. Orientale responded that “of 275 clients that we maintain, not one has asked for that.”

David Murray, a village resident and owner of Murray Design & Build in Greenport, told the board that “I’m being asked to take a huge cost of setting up for this.”

Referring to Mr. Orientale, Mr. Murray said that Soundside Landscaping has 20 gas-powered backpack blowers. “So he’s going to need to resupply 20 battery systems. How is he going to charge them? I don’t think the Department of Transportation allows you to carry that many batteries on your trailer.”

He went on to contend that “the village can’t handle this.

“The last thing the code enforcer needs right now is to get additional calls. He can’t do his job as it is … [with] permits, rental permits, ticketing … The village will get 10 to 15 calls a day, and you’re going to ask [code enforcement] to run down to go violate somebody for a gas blower? I think you need to step back, quit throwing [up] this type of code in the off season.

Greenport has long struggled to attract and maintain code enforcement officers, due in part to the less-than-competitive salaries that the village can afford to offer.

Sixth Street resident James Taylor supports the proposed ban.

“There are three reasons,” he said. “One: the noise, obviously. The environmental impact, and three: the impact on the actual well-being of the user and the people who live in the neighborhood. But the only argument I ever hear coming in the other direction is that it’s going to be expensive or problematic or inconvenient to landscaping companies.

“Other towns and communities have enforced a ban of this kind successfully [and] the landscaping companies have had to adjust.”

In 2021, the Town of East Hampton issued a seasonal ban on gas-powered leafblowers from mid-May to mid-September, and banned the use of all leafblowers on Sundays between those dates. The ban applies only to properties smaller than one acre.

Resident Leueen Miller, who runs the Inn at Harbor Knoll on Fourth Street, said she finds the proposed ban “ridiculous” and said she wanted to “urge the board to focus on more serious issues.

“I think I probably have one of the largest gardens in Greenport,” Ms. Miller said. “I have a contractor who comes in the summer once a week. He comes with four guys … it is noisy for about 20 minutes … they’re in and out in 20 minutes. And I’m indebted to them. So is it leafblowers today and tomorrow the lawnmowers?”

Resident Hillary Gulley followed, telling the board “I also have one of the biggest gardens in the village … we have almost 12,000 square feet … somehow I’ve been able to take care of this 12,000 square foot garden without a gas-powered leafblower.” Ms. Gulley, who said she owns an electric-powered leafblower, went on to note that “nobody is banning leafblowers.

“They’re just banning the really noisy, gas-powered ones that vibrate your eardrums, and I can’t have a conversation with my own husband in my kitchen when it’s happening around us.”

The code committee, headed by Ms. Phillips, has been holding public meetings for more than a year to discuss, debate and seek input on potential ways to get town codes adjusted, improved or revised — part of a larger effort to complete an update to the village’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.

“This is the third public hearing I’ve been to concerning gas-powered leaf blowers,” resident Ken Ludacer said. “And invariably, the argument comes down to this: on the one hand, you have a large body of facts, numerous studies on the health and environmental harm caused by gas-powered leafblowers. These facts are not disputed by the other side of the leafblower argument. Actually, they’re barely acknowledged. Instead, the other side counters with a purely speculative suggestion that curbing or banning gas-powered leafblowers might adversely impact landscapers’ profit margin.”

After a vote to extend the public hearing period on the leafblower proposal, Trustee Patrick Brennan said the issue was worth taking the time to hear from as many people as possible.

“I want to hear from more people. And I understand that this does not represent the entire village by any means. But I’m glad to see more people here commenting on this. I’m glad to see we have a little bit more representation from the landscaping industry here tonight. So, to the criticism about spending too much time I don’t agree.”

The trustees also heard feedback about a proposal to change the definition of a “short term rental” in the village to a minimum 30-day stay, more than twice the current minimum of 14 days.

John Farrell, an attorney who said he represents  “a number of property owners in the village that are proprietors of short-term rentals” said his clients oppose the plan.

“Many of the people I represent were understandably upset when the village first restricted short term rentals by mandating a 14 day minimum [in 2018], and they continue to struggle finding renters.” Without naming his clients, Mr. Farrell said they are “curious as to why the more than 100% increase in the number of days to be considered a short term rental. Curious about the benefits to the village versus the detriments to them. Collectively, my clients have invested millions of dollars in their homes in the village of Greenport. They’ve helped increase property values. The tax base has increased, foot traffic in the downtown has increased, which has helped the local businesses thrive throughout the year.”

Mr. Farrell suggested that the village consider changing the codes to allow for more multi-family housing.