Fall is a little different in Sacramento this year.
For the first time in more than three decades, leaf season has arrived without the clank and shriek of “the Claw,” that distinctive tractor-mounted contraption that scoops leaf piles from the street for disposal.
Sacramento voters approved a ballot measure last year that allowed the city to phase out street pickup of yard waste as a regular service. The goal was to ease the city budget by cutting back on a service that less than 10 percent of residents still used on a year-round basis.
Instead, yard waste must now go in rolling bins. The Claw still serves everyone, but only from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31 as a means of managing the heavy load of leaf season.
Some residents and gardeners apparently didn’t get the memo, and they’ve already begun piling leaves in the street. Scores of area homeowners were recently presented with violation notices from the city, warning that they could be fined $250 if those piles aren’t cleaned up within three days.
Since the new rules took effect July 1, the city has handed out at least 350 violation notices for illegal street piles, said Erin Treadwell, spokeswoman for the city’s recycling and solid waste division.
“We realize that for a lot of people, this is an adjustment,” Treadwell said.
The new yard waste rules were approved by the City Council in December. The changes were based in part on historical data from Treadwell’s department that showed the city hauls the greatest tonnage of yard waste in November, December and January.
No one disputes that leaves also fall from trees in October. It was simply assumed October’s lighter leaf load could be handled using the bins alone. That has not been the case, at least for some.
“I’ve noticed some piles springing up,” said Mark Abrahams, president of the Land Park Community Association. “In my mind, if I see a pile, I don’t have a lot of grief about it.”
Others consider the piles an eyesore and an obstacle to parking, especially in congested areas such as midtown. No one has been fined yet, and the violation notices do present other options. Among them: one annual free debris pickup between February and October, available to all residents by calling 311; a free coupon to dispose of yard waste at the dump; a special-service pickup for a minimum fee of $125; and purchasing extra 96-gallon yard waste bins for a monthly charge of $3.34 per bin.
Treadwell said residents can also check with neighbors who might have space available in their green waste containers, or who haven't used their free pickup this year. People can also compost their leaf litter, and use it for mulch around trees, in garden beds and other landscaping.
They can also simply bag leaves, or pile them in the yard, then move them to the street on Nov. 1.
As of Nov. 1, the city will start picking up leaf piles about every seven to 12 days. Residents can check the city website, sacrecycle.org, to find out when the last pickup in their neighborhood occurred and the estimated date for the next one. Treadwell said the pickups could occur 24 hours before or 24 hours after the date listed.
She stressed it is important for people to fill their yard waste bin first for weekly pickups to help reduce the amount of material that has to be collected from the street. Doing so, she said, will reduce the work for Claw crews and allow them to cycle through neighborhoods more frequently. The city has about 14 Claw crews working during the three-month leaf season.
Abrahams wishes the city could be more flexible. When the new regulations were adopted, he proposed that the city build in flexibility to adjust the start and end of street pickup. Leaves, he said, don’t fall according to the calendar, but according to weather conditions such as temperature, precipitation and wind. Certain tree species also lose their leaves earlier or later than others.
Threatening a $250 fine at this early stage of a new program, he said, is excessive.
“I would have liked to see something way less stern,” Abrahams said. “I can appreciate that some people, as the leaves start dropping, find it just a little bit easier to leave it out for a couple weeks. Is it the right thing to do? No. They’re being a little hard-handed here with these people.”
Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, said he thought the new program would be a “disaster.” But he has learned to live with it – even on his 2-acre property with numerous trees. To cope, he has three yard waste bins.
“I wasn’t very supportive at all, and yet I’ve learned to use those cans,” he said. “I fill up my cans and I’m just waiting for Nov. 1.”
Treadwell acknowledged one of the challenges is educating gardeners who, for many Sacramento homeowners, do the actual labor of moving and piling up leaves every week. Many of these crews have continued piling yard waste in the street.
When the new rules began, the city mailed informational fliers, in several languages, to landscapers who hold business licenses. City employees also stop to talk with landscapers they encounter in the field. But the city has no special licensing program for landscape maintenance crews, so no way to be sure all have been educated.
“We do suspect quite a lot of it has to do with gardeners,” Treadwell said. “The onus is really on the property owners to notify their gardeners. Part of your responsibility is to have your gardener be aware of the changes.”
Tretheway, a former city councilman, also thinks the city should consider adding flexibility to the program to allow earlier street pickup depending on conditions each year. He said this year could be one of those early leaf seasons.
“I would say, because it’s been so dry and warm, they’re probably dropping sooner this year,” Tretheway said. “I imagine it’s hard for the trees to bring up water and such.”
But Treadwell said it’s too early for the city to consider amending the rules. “Its hard to say we’re going to amend something we haven’t even gotten into yet,” she said. She did say the city is “strongly” considering allowing a second free on-call yard-waste pickup in 2014, vs.the current one pickup.
City Councilman Jay Schenirer is willing to adjust the rules if data indicates the Nov. 1 start of street pickup is inadequate, said his chief of staff, Joseph Devlin.
“We are hopeful the program works, because it does keep rates flat and reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint,” Devlin said. “But the program needs to also work on the user end.”
Even many skeptics admit they are pleased, overall, with how the new yard waste rules have unfolded so far. Abrahams noticed a pleasing secondary benefit in his Land Park neighborhood.
“I have to admit that I appreciate the cleaner streets that we have,” he said. “I have noticed a difference, and I think that’s a great positive with this program.”