By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
WHITMAN — A continuing problem with rats in an East Avenue neighborhood — and the possibility that two vacant houses on the street could be housing the vermin — brought about two dozen area residents to a Board of Health meeting Tuesday evening.
While there was doubt in some quarters if rats are, indeed, living inside 35 and 36 East Ave., there is evidence that raccoons are nesting in one of the houses.
A similar rat problem was dealt with in the West Street area two years ago.
“That has been a thorn in everybody’s side, to include ours,” said Health Board Chairman Eric Joubert, RN. “If we had our druthers, we’d tear the damn place [36 East Ave] down … the wheels are in motion to resolve those issues.”
Selectmen Dan Salvucci and Scott Lambiase also attended the meeting.
Small Animal Control Officer Robert Hammond said he has not seen rats on the properties, but has received reports of rats and raccoons from neighboring residents.
Town officials, meanwhile, say there are legal and financial limits to what can be done about the problem posed by the decaying houses and the two issues, of that danger and of the rats, have to be dealt with separately.
The town has foreclosed on 35 East Ave., and must wait until November [the end of a one-year waiting period] before it can do anything with it, including trying to sell the property to developer who would raze the house and build there, according to Town Administrator Frank Lynam.
“I can’t tell you with any certainty that the source of the rodents are these two houses,” he said, noting he has been to both houses in the past. “I took note of the conditions and they are horrible, but there was no evidence of wildlife in the houses.”
The house at 36 East Ave., had been in tax title but was redeemed by “one of the stakeholders of the property,” according to Lynam. One of the beneficiaries of the trust that holds it had been living there until condemnation proceedings began.
The properties face each other on opposite sides of the street.
“From an ownership standpoint, there are some things we can and some things we can’t do,” Lynam said.
To get rid of 36 East Ave., which Lynam termed the worst of the two, the town must begin an adverse taking process involving an inspection committee comprised of at least the building inspector, an engineer and a member of the Board of Health. Lynam indicated after hearing residents’ concerns that a member of the police and fire departments might also be included in that inspection committee.
Residents noted the boarded-up 35 East Ave., may have been broken into at the rear and that discarded propane tanks at 36 East Ave., are a source of safety concerns.
“There’s a lot of machines that have gas in them,” said Leo Dauksevicz of 44 East Ave. “There’s just a lot of safety concerns.”
He also raised a concern over what he described as a 36 East Ave. property owner burying asbestos shingles on the site.
A petition in the courts would follow a report supporting that action by the inspection committee.
“We will not move forward without a judicial order, because it puts the town in a liability position,” Lynam said. “The biggest question then becomes funding because we have to have funds have to pay someone to take the house down.”
That involves a Town Meeting vote.
Another option is to petition the Department of Revenue for permission to deficit spend and later transfer the money from the recap sheet as a bill to be paid by tax dollars next year.
The food source for the rats was also a topic for discussion as well as possible solutions to the problem.
“I had to get rid of my son’s rabbits,” said Steven Green of 28 East Ave., who also had to tear out his garden. “I looked in the cage and there was a rat staring at me — they’re going in and out of my basement.”
Green, whose son is 7 years old, lives next door to 36 East Ave.
Residents, including Patricia McKay of 26 East Ave., have been trapping rats to protect their homes. She asked if is possible to obtain state funding for baiting and trapping.
“I haven’t sat out in my yard for 14 months,” she said. “If they get into my home — it’s over.”
Another area resident suggested they work together on some fundraising to help pay for bait and traps, donating the funds to the town as a gift. The town is not permitted to conduct fund-raising.
Some residents also believe dumpsters behind the Rosen Realty office and the condominiums next door to it on Temple Street are serving as food sources for rodents.
“The two biggest food sources for these rats are the two dumpsters,” said Stephen Capachione of 16 East Ave. “I’ve seen these rats run rampant around those dumpsters.”
He alleged Rosen’s tenants at 53 Temple St., are placing household trash and garbage in the business office dumpster and that the condo’s dumpster also overflows because it is not big enough. While Rosen built the condos, he no longer owns that property.
Contacted after the meeting, Richard Rosen called the assertions “absurd,” though he said he has found other people’s trash in his dumpster.
He said his dumpster, which has been in the same spot for 23 years, has been inspected by the board of health chairman as well as Health Agent Lou D’Arpino and Hammond.
“It’s on asphalt and it s absolutely spotless around that dumpster,” he said. “There is no garbage in my dumpster … we do not generate garbage in my office.” He suggested the abandoned houses on East Avenue and debris in neighborhood backyards was more likely to blame for the rat problem, s was the case on West Street.
“We all share your concerns and they will be addressed,” Joubert told those attending the meeting. “I think everyone is willing to work together to resolve this issue.”
Lynam told those at the meeting that municipalities cannot establish covenants on properties without violating individual rights.
“As much as we’d like to, we have no right to regulate neighbors who are slobs,” Lynam said.
The Health Department’s website will be updated regarding the inspection committee’s report and the owners of dumpsters at Rosen Realty and Temple Street Place will be asked to place bait and/or traps, to ensure no one off the properties uses the dumpster and that the receptacles are sealed and secure, Joubert said. Bird feeders should be put away until the problem is solved animal feed and trash cans must be secured.
With the permission of property owners, Lynam said he would ask the DPW about placing traps in the East Avenue area as well as policing town-owned land for debris.
Concerns on the matter should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.