Swearing-in, NCCU expansion top City Council agenda
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for December 8, 2009

City to again look at curbside leaf vacuuming?

Pigs_fly We're filing this one under... well, see graphic at right, but hey, you can always hold out hope.

Just-re-elected Ward 2 Councilman Howard Clement kicked off the City Council meeting with an unexpected (possible) early holiday present to city residents -- assuming the budget can hold.

Just as the mayor was preparing to call the question on the consent agenda for the night, Clement hopped into the conversation to note an email inquiry received from a citizen on curbside leaf vacuuming.

IMG_0288 "I would respectfully request that the administration look at" the issue, Clement said, asking city manager Tom Bonfield for an update, and noting that the method was in place in both Cary and Raleigh to keep fall leaves off of city streets.

Bonfield noted that significant research by Solid Waste would be required in order to come up with a report on what such an initiative might look like.

"I had directed the staff that we look at that in conjunction with the budget process" for this year, Bonfield said, suggesting this might come up in one of this year's budget retreats, and citing the "considerable cost implications of implementing that service."

Bonfield's not kidding about the cost of such a program likely being "considerable."

A 2007 estimate by Solid Waste's Gene Arrington suggested to PAC2 that such an effort might cost $500,000 to start up and another $2.5 million per year to operate, though I can't help but wonder if those numbers weren't reversed on the listserv report from that time.

The topic of leaves has "fallen" again on neighborhood listservs, as some neighbors or their lawn crews somehow manage to migrate their leaves towards the curb, or worse, into the streets -- and there's one cross-street of Gregson whose house I glare at every morning when I pass it.

Then it rains, and the leaves get wet, and cars slip and slide; one listserv email reported seeing a car do a 180. Or, they clog the storm sewers, either clogging them up and causing flooding, or helping to pollute streams.

The City's position on the subject is clear for now:

The Department of Solid Waste Management and Stormwater Services remind residents that the City does not have a leaf vacuuming program. Residents who rake or blow leaves into the street are subject to a fine. Residents subscribing to the optional yard waste program may place up to 10 biodegradable paper bags at the curb for collection each week on their normal service day. The yard waste cart with a current sticker must be at the curb and filled before paper bags can be used. If a yard waste customer has more than 10 bags, the excess will be collected the following week or residents may call 650-4186 to schedule a bulky brush collection.

Photo credit for the flying pigs:


Todd Twigg

It is my understanding that (many years ago now) when the city was conducting (contracting) its own composting that their material did not include street-cleaned leaves, which would have contained substantial non-biodegradable trash.

So a question that I hope Solid Waste Dept will address is whether this program Councilman Clement has proposed could be attached to a local composting mechanism or whether it would be added to the real waste that must be trucked to the Virginia landfill.

On a related note, I haven't heard any update in several months regarding the "Yard Waste 'recycling' Program". Does anyone have current information? Is our city's wonderful organic matter/future-topsoil still being trucked to the Virginia landfill?

Education about the short-term economic and long-term ecological benefits of retaining one's own annual leaf matter would be a good idea. Also, perhaps the crews working solid waste pickup, or yard waste pickup or street cleaning could help enforce the rules/fines by recording the addresses of the bad actors who push their leaves into the street.

Steve Graff

It seems that the city has at least been piloting just such a program as during the past year or so I have seen two very different "leaf sucking" vehicles vacuuming the leaves from the gutters near our home.

The first was a large truck the size of a street sweeper. The driver was able to control a large vacuum hose from the cab of the vehicle and direct it to suck up leaves and litter.

The second was a small vehicle the size of a bobcat or ride-on lawn tractor. The driver had some sort of pole controlled vacuum host to suck up the leaves and debris. He also had a manual litter grabber that he was able to use to grab more distant litter items.

Both methods did a good job of cleaning up the leaves and litter from the gutter. As has been mentioned, it would be nice if certain yard care companies wouldn't blow lawn trimmings and leaves in the street. I never see it in action, just the aftermath.

Oh, and I saw a flying pig just like that this past weekend amongst an array of lawn ornamentation. I don't remember where, however.

Kevin Davis

@Steve: Reading your message too quickly I thought you meant the City was sucking leaves out of your _houses_ gutters, as opposed to those in the street.  I was thinking, how do I get on the list for that pilot program??

Will Wilson

Realize that street-sweeping isn't done for beautification reasons: It removes pollutants from roads, preventing them from getting into streams, and promoting water quality. I don't know any specifics about "leaf-sucking", but I'd guess that leaf decomposition increases tannins and dissolved organic carbon levels. Then there's consideration of plugged storm drains and subsequent flooding. I'm not sure, but it may be cost-effective to suck leaves from streets considering all the consequences, so the flying-pig thing might not be correct. Just some thoughts...

I found this quote from Wisconsin:
"Although leaves seem “natural” and harmless, excess leaves pose a threat to Dane County’s lake and stream water quality. Leaves in the street are washed down storm drains and ditches and into nearby lakes and streams when it rains. Once they get into the water and begin to decay, leaves release nutrients contributing to the excess algae in the lakes, making water recreation a less than pleasant experience. Even if the leaves themselves don’t move, rain seeping through leaf piles and leaves crushed by car tires makes a rich “nutrient tea” that flows along the curb into the storm drains.

The campaign urges residents to keep leaves out of the street and gutters, and offers alternatives to raking them to the curb by:
· composting leaves for a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your gardens or till them directly into your garden.
· chopping the leaves with your lawnmower into small particles that will decompose directly into your lawn.
· raking leaves and collecting them at the edge of the street—but not in the street or ditch. Make sure to sweep or rake leaves out of the street, gutter or ditch so that they don’t get washed down the storm drain. Wet the leaves down or cover the leaves with a tarp or bag them to prevent them from blowing into the street. "

Kevin Davis

@Will: Weve talked here before about some of those consequences, too, so Im glad you brought them up. In fact, Durhams being made to design its yard waste composting center with what are essentially BMPs at their base to catch runoff from piles of leaves and clippings when it rains at the solid waste transfer station. Good thing to add to the conversation.

That said, the flying-pig metaphor relates to the fact that this has been long-discussed, but slow to implement over costs. Just because there are big-picture economic returns to making an investment -- in this case, reduced pollution cleanup costs in SWMs picture and Falls Lake because weve picked up the leaves -- doesnt mean the political will is there to make the choice in the first place to give up other programs or raise taxes to pay for it.

That said, Im hearing some more buzz after last nights article that this time, the leaf-vac thing might actually happen, so who knows?

(Exhibit #1 to my above point: the national debate on health care reform, in which even those in favor of single-payer systems are deathly afraid to go out and talk about real, inexpensive, pro-active investments that would save money on health care reactive expenses -- taxes on sweets and sodas to reduce consumption, stronger action on tobacco and alcohol, etc. Any health policy economist worth their PhD will tell you that an ounce of prevention would have massive savings down the line on health expenses, but the political will isnt there even among reformers to basically ask Americans to change their lives. A similar tough conversation will be needed on environmental issues, and I dont think its likely to have any beter initial reception until or unless the real costs of inaction -- post-peak energy prices, water treatment or supply costs, etc. -- point them out.)

Will Wilson

BCR: Yes, the classic "I'll pay a dollar later instead of a penny now." That seems to be the mantra of "conservatives."

Todd P

In 2008, the City raised the assessment cost of adding curb & gutter to city streets that are paved but have no curb & gutter to $90 per foot, and $45 per foot for gravel streets. No one should be surprised that the City has not received any petitions for improvements since the rates were raised.

The previous rate had been $30 per foot of frontage, which translates to $1,500 for a 50’ lot, or $3,000 for a 100’ lot – a considerable sum for most people. The new rates make it prohibitively expensive for residents: $4,500 for a 50’ lot, and $9,000 for a 100’ lot. No neighborhood will be able to get 50%+ of its residents to agree to such an expense. I would be surprised if they got 10%.

Why is this pertinent to a leaf-sucking discussion? Because you can’t put your leaves at the curb if don't have one. Would a leaf sucker reach over and down six or eight or ten feet from the edge of the pavement to get to leaves in the ditch? Or would a leaf pickup service be limited to neighborhoods with curb and gutter, just like the street sweeping service already is?

This unequal level of service is not right, just like concentrating rec centers in one small area of town. Provisions should be made to provide similar levels of service to all residents.

Tar Heelz


If we return your health policy analogy to the topic of leaves and storm drains, the optimal approach would not be the enormous expense of vacuuming, but the cost efficient and effective tact of residents raking and collecting leaves and litter from the city's street and drains.

Oh, wait. I forgot. We're too fat, drunk, and lazy for all that! ;)

It ain't rocket science

Dear City of Durham,

please pick up leaves without requiring citizens pay an additional $60 per year for a yard waste sticker, and also lose the 10 bag limit per week.

Just pick up the leaves and keep them from preventing storm sewer problems.

Pretty frickin' simple.

Joseph F

@ Todd and Will: Yes, why can’t we do more to convince folks to look at the leaves as a resource rather than a nuisance? The answer certainly doesn’t seem to be a big, noisy, gas-guzzling machine sucking them all up.
If you have a lot big enough to rake, surely you have the space for something as simple as a four foot diameter cylinder of chicken wire to dump your leaves. It’ll cost about as much as a pack of throw away leaf bags and give you mulch by next year to use around your shrubs. Or even better: don’t toss your fallen branches into a brown bin either. Instead use them to outline a path a under your trees, fill in the space with leaves, a few easy to grow woodland natives and voila! No more trying to grow, fertilize and mow a lawnand you have an easy care natural area.
I know, I’m dreaming.

A. Librarian

What about the leaves that naturally fall into the gutter? In my neighborhood you might think that several of the residents are raking their leaves into the street, including me, but I can assure you it's just where they fall (and get pushed by traffic). I don't plan on raking the street in front of my house and I doubt my neighbors are going to, either. Is the City going to do something about the natural piles of leaves in the streets, too? Or just let Mother Nature take care of them eventually? I hope I am never penalized because trees happen to shed leaves on the street near my house.

frustrated do-gooder

If Durham would enforce the fines they claim are in effect (and not just for putting leaves in the street!) then the city might have enough money to give away yard waste services, as well as start education programs on recycling & composting.

In the past month, I've seen a police car drive right through a cloud of leaves being blown into the road by the landscapers for the NC Mutual building (note this is right next door to the police station!), and I've seen police cars sitting at red lights watching leaves be blown into the street. Did they stop and issue tickets? Anyone want to take bets on that?

Of course, I've also seen police cars violate multiple traffic laws, too. What I haven't seen is enforcement doing anything about the abandoned houses, (some non-working) cars parked on grassy yards, unneutered dogs running loose, etc. It's all the same thing really.

Steve Graff

BCR - Yeah, it would be nice if the city would clean our roof gutters too! Speaking of that, I need to clean my second story gutters and am not looking forward to it. Fortunately, I should be able to readily access them from the first story roofs.

If I see one of these mysterious leaf sucking machines coming up the street again I'll whip out my phone and take a few pictures. Maybe I can send them to that old TV show "In Search Of" and they can do a special - In Search Of... Durham Leaf Suckers!


Interesting discussion. As soon as the rain stopped this morning, I tried the private sector/communitarian approach--namely cleaning my own leaves out of the gutter, my next door neighbor's, and around the storm drain down the street. I raked the wet leaves, shoveled them into a wheelbarrow, and put them in a compost pile (not used for vegetables)back of the house. About an hour of aerobic exercise. Wet leaves take up much less space and are easier to work with than newly fallen dry leaves. It saved me a trip to the gym today.

A bit later, while walking the dog, I saw a couple of guys in a city Public Works truck unclogging drains. They said the city owns eight sweepers, which they run year-round. They seemed to know the neighborhood well--wanted to know when school ended for the semester so there wouldn't be so many student cars parked on the street.

Anyway, it seems that the city does work on this. But we can each do a bit to help if we adopt the nearest storm drain and try to keep it from filling up with leaves and trash.

Frank Hyman

@ nemontemi99

Thanks for setting a good example of being a reasonable and pro-active citizen.

Like JFK said, "Ask not...."

Several households on our block also clean up the leaves from our street gutters and don't find it to be a burden.

Adding vacuum leaf collection to city services would cost millions annually (operations and equipment) that could be spent on potholes, affordable housing, transit, greenways, police, job training, recreation centers, parks, summer jobs for youth, litter cleanup, etc.

Could all the people advocating for vacuum leaf collection please suggest which of these other municipal needs the council should short-change instead?

Frank Hyman


I see a potential business here. You charge X for leaf removal, compost the leaves, and sell them back to the homeowners in the spring as nice rich composted soil. All locally grown and composted right here in Durham.

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