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March 2, 2014

Bee Investigator: What’s with all those leaves, limbs and grass in Modesto streets?

Two questions: Why isn’t there a law to make folks stop blowing their yard waste into the street, and why do we have a costly street pickup program for pruned branches? We do have that law, and we need the green waste pickup to meet state recycling standards.

Two people asked about putting yard waste in the street.

Jason Lane of Salida said, “We’ve all seen gardeners blowing leaves and grass clippings down the street. Why is this OK? Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own clippings and waste?”

According to a Modesto ordinance, yes.

Steve Lumpkin, acting director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department, said there’s an ordinance in the city’s Municipal Code – Title 4, Chapter 7 under the public welfare, safety and health section – that reads: “With the exception of leaf season, no power blowers or any other method shall be used to blow or move any nonpruned refuse into the street at any time.” Leaf season, by the way, runs from mid-November to mid-January.

Lumpkin agreed with Lane: “Most every gardener in the country blows everything into the street,” he said. But that doesn’t make it legal, he added. “We do cite.”

In fact, he said, the city’s own landscaping contractor, Grover Landscape Services, has been cited for blowing lawn clippings and similar refuse into the gutter.

Lumpkin and Jocelyn Reed, Modesto’s solid waste program manager, said the city’s environmental compliance department is the one that will cite offenders. But, they explained, that department is mainly concerned with bigger problems, such as oil or toxic waste products getting into the sewer system; monitoring grass clippings just isn’t a big priority.

Proof of that: Tom Sinclair, Modesto’s environmental regulatory compliance administrator, wasn’t aware of the ban on blowing stuff into the street when I called him last week, and thought the solid waste department was the one that handed out those citations. He later said his department would cite residents if they saw a problem but didn’t go out looking for violators.

Lumpkin said the grass clippings can get into the city’s rock-well drain system and plug them up, causing problems during the rainy season. Or the refuse ends up in the storm drains that go directly to the river, adding solid material there. But, he added, “I don’t know if a little grass clipping hurts. We focus on oil and things that really hurt the system.”

But the ordinance makes clear that you should be picking up your refuse rather than blowing it into the street ... or your neighbor’s yard. As I used to tell my kids when they were teenagers, there’s no maid picking up after you; do it yourself.

Ronald Oswald of Modesto had a similar complaint. The city offers a once-a-month pickup of yard waste from the streets. Folks are supposed to put their pruned branches and similar material out by the curb on the Monday before their designated pickup. In addition, the rules say the material should be at least one foot from the curb but no more than four feet away.

People often disregard those rules, and sometimes the rules don’t make sense, Oswald said. For example, he explained, it’s hard to fit a Christmas tree into the width rule. Mainly, he wondered, why can’t folks put most of their yard waste in the green cans, with the city picking up larger piles just twice a year?

“What I frequently see are smaller piles of trimmings that could easily be cut down to fit in the green can,” he said. “Maybe it would take two weeks of pickups by the garbage trucks, but it would eliminate the special pickup.”

Nope, Reed said. The city exhaustively analyzed alternatives from 2004 through 2007.

“There’s just too much green waste to put in the cans,” she said. “We looked at every conceivable option. It just doesn’t pencil out. If this city didn’t have so much green waste, the fall and spring cleanup might work, but we have too much.”

On some of our older tree-lined streets, she said, the amount of green refuse “is amazing. There’s just too much material and it’s too valuable to the city.”

Valuable to the city? Yep. That’s because of the new laws coming from the state, which say that the city will have to recycle 75 percent of its solid waste in the next several years. Picking up the prunings and other yard waste helps meet that incredibly high number and saves the city from paying high penalties.

The price was something that concerned Oswald, too. The $1.75 million-per-year price tag plus $540,000 for stump grindings “seems to be an extravagance we can ill-afford, with an underfunded police force and crumbling infrastructure needs.”

While the state’s recycling standards make that cost necessary, Reed said, it’s also fairly inexpensive. It costs each residence just $1.93 a month for the street pickup program. “When we asked the garbage collectors to come up with a price (for doing it), it came out to be between $4.80 and $5 per residence. It was way more expensive than the city doing it,” she said. “For one thing, the city had its own equipment, which is also used to collect leaves mid-November to mid-January.”

Her department will cite residents who put out piles too early or that are too big, she said, but added, “It’s a big city, and a person can cut a tree down and we don’t know about it. There also are people who are going to jump the gun and routinely put it out too early. The best thing is if there’s a violation, call the green waste line, (209) 577-5463. We like to work with the residents so they know that’s not what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Fines start at $100 and can go up from there, so pay attention to those rules.

“The one thing I want to emphasize is that every year we pick up 15,000 tons of green waste, materials, leaves. And thousands of tons are hauled out in the green cans,” Reed said.

If you want to find out more about the rules for putting out refuse and the pickup dates, it’s all on the city’s website, On a related note, you can’t put out any prunings or larger refuse in December. The city collects only leaves from the streets in that month. That’s also when it’s OK to blow those leaves into the street, but not into the middle of the road or onto your neighbor’s property.

Next week, we’ll have a fun change of pace and talk about street names. Stay tuned.

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