WOBURN — With a judge’s blessing, the town of Ayer on Wednesday declared war on the hundreds of rats that infest the McNiff Farm on Westford Road.
At a hearing Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court, Judge Maynard Kirpalani extended a Dec. 16 temporary restraining order allowing Ayer officials to hire a company to exterminate the rats that infest the five-acre farm and pose a health and safety risk to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Kirpalani approved the town’s plan to hire Modern Pest Control of Woburn to begin the rat removal on Wednesday using a “bait and trap” approach to exterminate the rodents over a period of weeks.
This is the latest step the town has taken to abate what attorney Janelle Austin, representing the town, describes as a “huge health and safety concern” on the McNiff Farm.
While Littleton attorney Sherrill Gould, who represents farm owner Ralph McNiff, said McNiff agrees with the rat remediation, Gould said her 75-year-old client has lived on that pig and cattle farm for more than four decades.
The farm, which has always been surrounded by industry, didn’t raise any concerns until a housing development was built a half mile away.
Then about a 1 1/2 years ago, McNiff began experiencing health issues and had a family member who was “unqualified” run the farm, Gould said.
When town officials visited the farm earlier this month, they found dead pigs, sick calves covered in feces and rats. The town declared the property at 66 Westford Road a “nuisance, source of filth and cause of sickness within the town.”
The buildings and grounds contain dangerous conditions that pose a serious threat to public health and safety, including more than 100 sick and neglected animals, accumulations of filth, rubbish, debris, animal waste, and unsafe structures.
The Board of Health and Board of Selectmen went to court on Dec. 16 and got a temporary restraining order requiring McNiff to move out of his house. He complied.
After an investigation, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals removed about 80 pigs. McNiff took the remaining 60 head of cattle to auction.
While the condition of McNiff’s house and barn require a long-term solution, Austin told the judge the most immediate health concern on the property are the rats.
Ironically, with no one living on the farm, town officials have been forced to feed the rats for the past week so that they stayed on the farm and didn’t seek food sources at the nearby housing development.
Austin explained that in order to do effective rat extermination, a large amount of debris that the rats use for their habitats must be removed.
But Gould balked at removing items, such as old vehicles, from the site.
“For 45 years he has been a Yankee farmer,” Gould said. There is an accumulation of vehicles in various stages of repair, along with tin roofing material he was going to use on another barn, and other materials.
“What may look like junk has a lot of value sentimentally and otherwise,” Gould said. “Let Mr. McNiff get rid of his own things.”
Ayer Assistant Building Inspector Charles Schultz Jr. told the judge that with larger items, such as old vehicles, it is possible to relocate them onto a different part of the property so that the area around the barn can be cleared.
But Austin said McNiff is allowed to enter his property and remove personal items, but it is impossible to force the contractor to “piecemeal” every item that is being removed.
The judge urged the town to “work with” McNiff at the site to determine what vehicles and personal property should be removed or just relocated. He ordered both sides to submit a written status report on the progress in two weeks.