Craig Russell sworn in and voters will decide next year on gas leaf blower ban

The newest commissioner took his seat just as one of the city’s most controversial issues came up for a vote

April 25, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Voters will decide next year whether Winter Park will keep its ban on gas-powered leaf blowers after two tense and divided votes Wednesday that included new Commissioner Craig Russell for the first time.

The debate highlighted the power of the mayor’s role on the board — steering the debate and casting the final vote — with new Mayor Sheila DeCiccio twice breaking a 2-2 tie.

She ultimately sided with allowing voters to have a say about the ban on the March 2025 ballot, when the seats belonging to commissioners Todd Weaver and Kris Cruzada will also be up for election.

Russell and Cruzada cast votes in favor of the referendum while Weaver and Sullivan voted against it.

“At the end of the day, there was such division,” DeCiccio said after the meeting. “After listening to residents on both sides, the voters have to make this decision. Nobody wanted the referendum … the landscapers didn’t want it, but this way — one way or the other — it’s decided.”

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From left to right: Marty Sullivan, Craig Russell, Sheila DeCiccio, Kris Cruzada and Todd Weaver.

Just before the vote, Russell attempted to table the matter and order city staff to draw up a new ordinance that would repeal the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers that the City Commission passed unanimously in 2022.

“I’m not going to tell a police officer what kind of gun to buy or a firefighter what kind of hose to buy,” Russell said, noting that he saw it as “obvious” that residents do not want the ban.

Frank Hamner, the attorney for the Holler family, which were among Russell’s biggest campaign donors, watched the meeting closely from the audience and stood up twice to speak in support of motions Russell attempted to make.

“How many man hours have you wasted on this thing?” Hamner, who until last week wasn’t a regular attendee at commission meetings, asked the board about the leaf blower discussion. “If you can’t, as a government, accept oversight or criticism you’re in the wrong business.”

Russell’s motion lost in a 3-2 vote with only Cruzada supporting his effort.

Weaver, who earlier in the meeting was elected as the new vice mayor and was on the commission when the ban was first passed in 2022, explained that the rule came about because of noise, health and safety concerns.

Leaf blowers, like many gas-powered machines, emit known carcinogens. They are also the loudest lawn equipment used on a daily basis.

“They aren’t ‘suspected’ to be cancer-causing, they are cancer-causing,” Weaver said, showing slides from several national studies.

The city’s ban was set to take effect in June, 30 months after it was originally passed, to give landscape companies and residents time to transition to electric models.

But in January the landscape companies organized and complained that they hadn’t had enough time and that the transition was too expensive and detrimental to their small businesses.

“I understand these electric leaf blowers are going to have to be purchased,” Weaver said. “But I don’t think it’s at all fair for the rest of us to subsidize extremely expensive health care when there’s something we can do about it.”

Sen. Jason Brodeur, who represents Winter Park, but calls Seminole County home, seized on the issue as an example of local government overreach even though a number of Florida cities already have similar bans.

Brodeur took up the landscape companies’ cause and threatened to pass a state law to prohibit such a ban if Winter Park did not place the issue on next year’s ballot for voters to decide, according to City Manager Randy Knight, who negotiated the arrangement with him.

Despite that agreement Brodeur inserted language into the state budget, which still hasn’t been signed by the governor, that prohibits cities from enacting or amending gas-powered leaf blower ordinances until next year after the results of a $100,000 study he ordered.

Weaver said he objected to state dollars going toward a study that he considered redundant after a number of other studies have already been done on the topic.

Cruzada defended the new study saying new data is needed. He also noted that the commission’s ordinance came about near the height of the pandemic when more people were working from home and complaining of the constant noise from leaf blowers and suggested those complaints have mostly passed.

Voters will now get to settle the debate on the March 11, 2025 ballot.

Moments after the leaf blower discussion, Russell asserted his new influence once again during the hearing of an ordinance to clean up language regarding how mixed-uses are defined within the Orange Avenue Overlay.

He pointed out where the word “commercial” was stricken and said, “I just think it’s a mistake,” because the word commercial was repeated again later.

Hamner took the microphone for a second time to support Russell’s comment.

“I fear if you take ‘commercial’ out where it’s stricken, it’s going to lack clarity going forward,” he said.

The planning director and DeCiccio explained that the change was to add more specific language about how “commercial” is defined so that developers understand what “mixed-use” means.

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Craig Russell shares a moment with his family just after taking the oath of office.

When the McCraney building was up for debate a few months ago it was the first new development to be approved under the new Orange Avenue Overlay rules and there was discussion about whether two different types of offices could constitute “mixed-use,” such as a bank without tellers and a real estate office.

Russell then moved to amend the language with a suggestion from the planning director to add even more specificity, which was approved by the rest of the commission.

Earlier in the meeting he officially took the oath of office with his family by his side after winning the run-off against Jason Johnson by 34 votes.

“I’m just so proud to get to meet and work with so many talented people,” he said at the end of the meeting, noting that he would like to create a youth advisory board or find other ways to incorporate new voices into city government. ” On the record, I have to thank my family — the army I have, my kids and my wife — I wouldn’t be here without them.”

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