By Anne O’Connor
AYER — After a farm was declared a public nuisance, the buildings condemned and a no-trespassing order went into effect, a family member of the owner faces criminal charges and the town is in the hole, so far, for nearly $107,000.
Eight animal-cruelty charges were filed in Ayer District Court on Wednesday, Dec. 28, said Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand during Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting.
After the meeting, he identified the defendant as Troy McNiff of Ayer, the son of Ralph McNiff, who owns the farm at 66 Westford Road.
Since Nov. 23, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Ralph McNiff have removed all the animals. The MSPCA found dead animals and signs of animal cannibalism after investigating a report, Pontbriand said.
Pontbriand has not been able to secure copies of any MSPCA reports or reports from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture.
During the investigation, a rat infestation was identified. The exterminators could not begin work until after court approval was granted on Dec. 27. Middlesex Superior Court approved the town’s plan to hire an exterminator and to remove the harborage, the debris and trash sheltering the rats.
The town fed the rats in the interim so they would not move off the property. The exterminators placed 250 traps that are checked twice a day. In addition to traps and poison, they are using air rifles to keep the rats from spreading.
Heavy equipment is at the farm, removing materials.
“It is a monumental task,” Pontbriand said. The exterminators expect the job to take five weeks. Monthly and yearly monitoring will be required.
A civil status hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13. At that time Ralph McNiff is expected to have a plan to remove the vehicles on the property, Pontbriand said.
Town officials will meet with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate the grounds and vehicles later in the week.
The two selectmen present approved a declaration of a state of emergency which will allow the town to put the cost on next year’s budget after submitting bills to the Department of Revenue.
“The town is going to make every attempt to collect this money,” said Selectman Chris Hillman.
“Even the court has told him (Ralph McNiff) that all bills go to him,” said Selectman Jannice Livingston.
The town could place a lien on the property, but a lien is good only if it is repaid, Pontbriand said.
The fate of the land is not clear. The property is going through tax title, said Tax Collector Susan Copeland. She began the process before the MSPCA began to remove animals.
At the end of the tax title process, the town can choose to take the property. Then the selectmen can decide if the town should take possession of it, Pontbriand said.
McNiff owes just under $25,000 in back taxes, Copeland said. There are also unpaid water bills.
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