The Board of Directors at a working session on July 19 unanimously supported the continuation of the current fall leaf vacuuming program, based on a presentation by the Superintendent of the Department of Public Works, Jeff Coleman.
The Village Leaf Pickup Program uses trucks equipped with worker-operated vacuums to remove leaves piled at the edges of properties each fall. Labor is the most expensive aspect of the operation. In a cost analysis, Coleman concluded that, compared to alternatives such as using more trucks and more labor to collect the bagged leaves, the most profitable outcome for the village at l ‘current time is to retain the current method of collecting leaves.
The council’s decision to accept Coleman’s recommendation drew mixed responses from members of the landscaping industry and community, including Michael Iorio, president of the New York State Turf & Landscape Association, who applauded the directors’ decision, and Darlene LeFrancois Haber, MD, co-chair of the Scarsdale Forum’s Climate Resilience Committee, who gave an impassioned speech opposing it.
Haber said she was discouraged by continuing to collect the leaves, calling it a “waste” and a “disgrace.” But she said she was encouraged that the village remained “ready to reduce suction, effort and transport if determined…by the village council” to do so.
Haber urged the board to consider the “climate crisis” when reviewing the program going forward. “It’s our policy of establishing obligations to do the right thing — to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We pay for this not only financially [Scarsdale budgets about $636,000 for leaf collection] … but we pay for this in terms of health, safety and climate.
Along the same lines, Administrator Jonathan Lewis said during the working session that the village should think more strategically and “put this climate discussion higher on the agenda, which could also feed into a more comprehensive village sustainability report,” which he says could “support a lower interest rate, as this would attract responsible investors to our community, supporting our triple-A rating.”
Administrators Jeremy Gans and Sameer Ahuja both said that the majority of people they know who are aware of this issue do not want change; they’d rather maintain the “aesthetics” of their lawn than try to mow the leaves with mulch. “If everyone had to choose to mow with mulch or leaf mulch, that would be an easy scenario,” Gans said, but “I think we know because of the aesthetics, or at least the perception of the ‘aesthetics, that won’t happen.
He continued: ‘If people don’t want to change and it looks like from the numbers it’s going to cost more, and I think the environmental impact is unclear…and then you have multiple trucks that pick up the bags, drive them to several places, is it better or worse for the environment? Given residents’ preferences and cost benefits, Gans said he believes “it’s in the interest of the village as a whole to preserve the status quo.”
From a landscaper’s perspective, Iorio said, “There are homeowners in Scarsdale who… want their leaves picked up and removed from their property, and most of those homeowners pay pretty high taxes to live in Scarsdale. I don’t think they would want that service taken away from them.
Crane Road resident Susan Douglass, chair of the Scarsdale Forum, took issue with anyone calling leaf collection a “service”.
“I would say that’s a disservice,” she said. “It harms our environment. It harms our future. This leads to additional costs in terms of slippery road conditions, ticks and droppings and things that build up on the sides of our roads – all things that were documented in the Forum report,” Douglass said. . “Other communities have learned that when they switch and stop vacuuming the leaves, residents are happy with the decision,” she said, acknowledging that it “takes a bit of adjustment.”
Douglass challenged the idea that “you’d pay more money” without the service, citing his friends in Greenburgh who said they haven’t been paying more since the city stopped its leaf vacuuming program.
Douglass is among those who “don’t want to pay for people who want destructive environmental practices to maintain their ideal of what the lawn should look like. I’m not saying lawns have to look like scorching messes – everyone is very proud of their Scarsdale home. But mowing with mulch and other similar eco-friendly practices results in great looking lawns.
She said her own lawn service in Scarsdale mulches her property in the fall and leaves grass clippings on the lawn in the summer.
“We don’t pay more,” she says, “And they wholeheartedly endorse this means of lawn care. Anyone is welcome to come to our house and look at our yard with our grass in the summer and our mulch in fall. looks great… and [there is] less water consumption. Our lawn is very lush – full of worms, insects and birds all the time because our lawn is healthy.
Mike Siconolfi of Siconolfi Landscape Contracting Corp, speaking in favor of the decision, said he hoped there were studies to show the amount of dust particles put into the air by mulching leaves in place . The resulting respiratory problems are “a big concern”, he said. He also said it is cheaper for landowners to have the leaves collected by the village. “For landscapers, it’s almost better [to stop leaf vacuuming] because we would earn more money…because it will take us more time to do the work” of transporting the leaves.
Siconolfi proposed that the village make compost from collected leaf mulch and then resell it to landlords and landscapers.
Further opposition to the decision came from Madelaine Eppenstein, a 29-year Scarsdale resident and proponent of mulch mowing, and member of the Scarsdale Forum, who published reports in 2021 and 2022 examining the impact of the use of gas-powered blowers, leaf vacuums, and leaf mulching.
Eppenstein urged the council to “soon reach a similar inflection point at which the entrenched policy of leaf vacuuming is seen for what it is, a harmful danger to the environment and to public health and safety that must be interrupted”.
The current fall leaf collection program “will result in the unnecessary disposal of approximately 5,000 tons of residential leaves,” Eppenstein wrote in a statement submitted to the village council. She said the village should instead “actively transition to alternative leaf collection methods and programs that have successfully thrived in many of Scarsdale’s surrounding municipalities, where residents use this valuable resource to nurture the soil, plants and the environment”.
Collecting the leaves using vacuum trucks “effectively ignores the compelling science behind the negative environmental and public health and safety impacts of Scarsdale’s current carbon-intensive leaf-vacuuming program.” Eppenstein wrote, adding that “the proposal once again undermines the village’s 2011 resolution [to promote mulch mowing] and exposes the contradiction of requiring mower mulching on village properties and recreation grounds for the past decade.
She also took issue with the placement of information from the village’s public education campaign on on-site mulch mowing, which she said was “relegated…to the sub-pages of [the village] website.
Eppenstein disagreed with Coleman’s statement that the current leaf collection program is the most cost effective way to remove leaves in the fall. “Demonstrably more efficient and cost-effective alternatives have been consistently supported by the village’s own Conservation Advisory Board,” she said.
During the July 19 public comment session, Eppenstein cited effective, fast and cost-effective alternatives already practiced by landscape service providers David Duarte, Anthony Vulpone and Tim Downey. “[They] all use mulch as a practice and find it very effective for their customers. I’ve been doing it for decades now.
In 2021, Scarsdale administrators decided to drastically limit the use of petrol-powered snowblowers in the village, although some residents argued for a ban altogether. Similar or more restrictive bans are in effect in neighboring municipalities, including New Rochelle and the town of Mamaroneck/Larchmont.
Leaf vacuuming services have been cut in some nearby towns, such as Greenburgh, where residents and landscapers are encouraged to mulch leaves, while bagged or contained leaves are collected weekly in the fall. Tom Surace, also a member of the New York State Turf and Landscape Association, urged the village to consider the relative cost of “emissions from trucks hauling leaves in and out.” as opposed to a leaf collection system”. But he also noted that the association, a green industry nonprofit, educates and trains grounds maintenance professionals to “conduct low-impact maintenance operations.”