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Early snow snarls Concord leaf pickup, but the vacuums will roll again

  • A pile of leaves on the sidewalk spills onto Concord Street in Concord last week. Crews are heading back out today. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A pile of leaves intertwined with snow and ice sits on the edge of Perley Street. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/19/2018 4:48:18 PM

It’s not quite true that Concord’s curbside leaf-collection program gets snarled by snow every year. It just seems that way.

“We need to get through all the properties ... and then have the time to go back and pick up the ones that we may have gone past their house before the people got their leaves out, or not all the leaves had fallen. In the past nine years, we’ve only been able to do that two times,” said Chip Chesley, director of General Services for the city.

This year was another one of the ones where the weather got in the way.

About 30 percent of the 8,500 city properties where bulk leaf collection occurs missed the vacuum clean up before two snowstorms in November froze them to the ground, according to the city.

The return of warm weather may help, as crews were scheduled to head out again Thursday to pick up some of the leaves that were missed.

Even so, the situation produced concern, including a Dec. 9 op-ed in the Monitor’s Forum section by city resident Leslie Ludtke, who criticized not only lack of pickup, but a lack of communication.

“Complaints to city officials on this issue have yielded no response, other than the city is now in winter mode and can’t be bothered with fall responsibilities,” she wrote.

Compounding possible confusion is that this is the first year the city has run what it calls a hybrid leaf pickup system. People could bag their yard waste and leave bags at the curb to be picked up by Casella, the firm that has the city’s contract for recycling pickup, which came by once a week on three occasions beginning Nov. 19.

Or people could rake their leaves to the curb for pickup by the vacuum trucks that the city has used for decades.

Concord is unique

Concord is the only community in New Hampshire that sucks up curbside leaves using giant vacuums hauled behind city trucks. That system is more common further south, where winter weather is less likely to interfere.

“If this was Maryland, we wouldn’t have any problems,” said Chesley.

The vacuum system, known as bulk pickup, usually begins in late October and runs through Thanksgiving into early December. 

This year, however, leaves seemed to hang on trees a little longer, then snow fell Nov. 15 and again Nov. 21, Thanksgiving eve, snarling those plans.

All the bagged leaves could be picked up, but bulk leaves became frozen wads stuck to the ground. In a number of neighborhoods – sometimes only on one side of the street, depending on the pickup schedule – leaves raked to the curb froze into long, dirty windrows.

Compounding issues for the city is that the same trucks that haul the leaf-collection vacuums do the plowing and road cleanup for storms, and it takes almost a day to switch the city trucks from one job to the other.

About 10 percent of the 8,500 properties eligible for curbside leaf pickup used bags, from Casella’s estimate, and they produced about 25 percent of the total volume of leaves collected as of early December, Chesley said. It’s unclear why bagged properties seemed to produce more than their share of leaves – one homeowner put out 50 bags of leaves, Chesley said – although this may reflect the fact that all the bagged properties were picked up but not all the bulk properties were hit.

Leaves can still be taken to Dirt Doctors, 709 Keith Ave., and left for free.

“Typically for Thanksgiving weekend, we get a lot of people. Since it snowed, we didn’t,” said Samantha Clapp, spokeswoman for the company. “We’ve been pretty busy with leaves since then.”

Always a problem

The question of leaf pickup has long been a gnarly one for the city, creating tension after the leaves turn color.

“This is a period of high anxiety around here,” said Adam Clark, administration division manager.

That anxiety and tension showed up at public hearings in September when the city council considered whether to end the bulk collection and only use collection of bagged leaves. Public opposition led to the hybrid system.

The city budgeted $171,000 in the current fiscal year for leaf collection. The council added $37,500 to pay for the Casella pickup, Clark said.

As a result, Concord residents have two leaf-collection options to choose from. But neither is perfect.

“It’s more convenient to rake your leaves to the curb, but it’s riskier,” said Chesley. “With bags, you know you will get picked up on time.”

As if to underline that point, the city was planning to send some crews out to the streets Monday to vacuum up some leaves. But you know what happened: It snowed.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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