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Health, pest officials say solving East Watertown rat infestation needs to be continuing community effort

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  September 21, 2012 03:45 PM

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Local health and pest control officials said Thursday night that the East Watertown rat infestation can only be solved if every affected private home and business owner chips in to hire extermination companies and rat-proof their properties.

However, many homeowners and tenants said at a public meeting that they worried some of their neighbors were not jumping on board to solve the communal issue, wasting the money of those who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on extermination services.

"I do take care of my property, but my place is next door to absentee landlords who don't," said Sofia Stefanis, who owns property on Crawford Street and has hired pest control services twice this summer. "I just feel like, my God, my money’s going nowhere."

Health officials have been targeting the rat infestation in East Watertown, starting with the neighborhood around Coolidge Hill Road, Crawford Street, and Kondazian Street after receiving a sharp increase in rat sightings this year. The area is where the town has received the most complaints this summer.

The town usually receives a handful of rat sighting calls in previous years, but since this May, the health department has received much more than usual, said Kristel Bennett, Watertown's chief environmental health officer.

An initial town investigation saw that nearly 20 properties in East Watertown had signs of rodent activity, Bennett said.

Steven Ward, Watertown Health Department director, said the infestation has become very dire.

"My colleagues in Boston and Somerville said they have never seen anything like this," Ward said. "This is amazing."

Watertown - just like neighboring cities Somerville, Cambridge and Boston - has seen a boom in rat activity most likely because of this past winter's unseasonably warm weather, said Richard Hatfield, operating manager of Waltham Services, a pest control company working with the town.

"We have come to a point where the local rat population has thrived, expanded and become more apparent, and more rats means you’ll notice them more," Hatfield told about three dozen residents at the meeting. "But with everyone pulling in the same direction, this situation can be corrected."

Hatfield showed residents a slideshow with pictures of rat-infested conditions in their immediate neighborhood, pointing out places where rats have burrowed and where he was worried they would nest next.

He said all neighbors must take care of their individual properties and exterminate simultaneously in order to get rid of the community's rodent problem.

Bennett said although the town cannot traverse private residential property without permission from homeowners to check their property for rodent activity, health officials have conducted investigations from the street to see if any properties have apparent rat problems.

If a property is seen as housing rodent activity, the town can send them a letter ordering them to take care of the problem on their own dime, citing a breach of town public nuisance laws, Ward said.

If a property owner does not seek proper measures to exterminate the rodents and rat-proof their properties, the town can take the owner to court with criminal charges, Ward said.

Although many residents said they were ready to do their part for the neighborhood, many were upset that some of their neighbors and abutters - particularly some local businesses and absentee landlords - had not worked to landscape and rat-proof their properties.

Many residents also said they have received more than one order letter from the town this summer, putting them hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars in the hole while their neighbors did nothing.

"I spent at least $300 the first time, plus another $500, but what about the absentee landlords?" Stefanis said. "I understand this is a continued effort, and I'm taking care of the problem, but why should I take care of the neighborhood?"

Bill Patterson, a Kondazian Street resident, agreed.

"If I spend all this money on pest control, but my neighbor doesn't, then what stops the problem from continuing and me from wasting my money?" Patterson said.

Some people who lived in the area as tenants said their landlords know about the problem, but are either not doing anything or are not doing enough to correct it. Others worried that a local restaurant's dumpsters were the main source of the problem.

However, Ward stressed that the town was working with absentee property owners and local business owners as well to bring the area up to code, and that if anyone failed to, then the town would pursue legal action.

"If someone complains about a neighbor, we go and see if we can find a violation," Ward said. "We don’t intend the letters to be an insult, but the government responds to any condition that lends itself to a nuisance violation."

Angeline Kounelis, a city councillor representing parts of East Watertown, said she understood why residents were annoyed, as she also lives in the area.

"The east end is an older part of Watertown - we all understand how difficult and costly is is to maintain older homes," she said. "We can do this together, but it won't happen overnight."

During the meeting, Hatfield recommended a list of tips for residents to rat-proof their properties, including:

  • Sealing up any holes rodents use to enter the house or garage
  • Calling an exterminator if owners find burrows outside
  • Keeping thinly-cropped lawns and landscaping
  • Storing interior food in thick, tight-lidded containers
  • Placing lids tightly on outdoor garbage bins and dumpster

He also warned that rodents have the potential to carry diseases that could infect humans.

Town officials said there will be more meetings in the future to give residents an update on the situation.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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