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Water in Your Birdbath? That Will Be $300 #desperate #madness

Cartoon of 2 birds talking about a bird bath.

Cartoon of 2 birds talking about a bird bath. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water in Your Birdbath? That Will Be $300
2012-04-23 08:30:32.640 GMT

courtesy of Bloomberg

(New York Times) — Imagine Joseph Pomares’s surprise when
he went to his local post office in Long Island City, Queens, one
Saturday last summer to collect a certified letter. He had no
idea what awaited him, but the last thing he expected to find was
a summons from the city’s health department.
The summons referred to a two-story brick house in Astoria
that Mr. Pomares, a 53-year-old home renovation contractor, had
recently refurbished and rented to tenants. Titled “vector
control inspection work order,” the citation accused him of
violating what appeared to be a paradoxical imperative: “standing
water” in a birdbath. The violation of Article 151 of the city’s
health code could subject him to a $2,000 fine.
“I bought the birdbath brand new. I thought I was doing
something good, and I changed the water every other day,” Mr.
Pomares recalled. “I had beautiful birds.”
Mr. Pomares was one of 699 New Yorkers who learned last year
that April showers can bring a lot more than May flowers. They
can also deliver property owners a summons. Most of those issued
in 2011 were for poorly maintained swimming pools and standing
water at construction sites. Even an ordinary puddle can lead to
a violation. So can a birdbath, as four surprised New Yorkers
found out.
During mosquito-breeding season, from April to October,
standing water on the ground, in roof gutters, on swimming pool
covers and in discarded tires, among other places, can violate
Article 151, which covers pest prevention and management. Health
officials said the 699 summonses issued last year was about
In a city where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has all but
banned smoking and waged war on soda and trans fats, some New
Yorkers may complain that the crackdown on birdbaths is yet
another intrusion by the nanny state or a ruse to raise more
money for municipal coffers.
Actually, a regulation against stagnant water has been on
the books for more than a decade, but in the battle against West
Nile virus, the health code was amended last year. It explicitly
made landlords liable and applied the rule, apparently more
broadly, to “standing water” rather than “stagnant water” and
further empowered the department not only to prevent “the
breeding or harborage” of mosquitoes, but also to prevent
“conditions conducive” to their breeding or harborage.
As a result, one creature’s beverage can be another’s
breeding ground. Dimitri Gatanas, an owner of the Urban Garden
Center in East Harlem, said, “When there’s a mosquito issue,
someone gets nervous and files a complaint.”
One solution is to buy a birdbath that circulates the water.
Some nurseries sell pellets that John Razzano of Market Garden
Center in Brooklyn says “kill the mosquito larvae, but don’t hurt
the birds.”
Mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus lay their eggs in
standing water, although exactly what constitutes standing water
is ambiguous. Asked to explain the difference between standing
and stagnant, a department spokeswoman, Chanel Caraway, gamely
said: “Standing waters become increasingly stagnant with time as
they become more and more concentrated with decomposing organic
material, which is food for the mosquito larvae.”
Ms. Caraway emphasized that the agency is not necessarily
anti-birdbath. “The health department will issue a notice of
violation for standing water in a birdbath only if that water is
stagnant, not simply for having water in a birdbath,” she said.
“The decomposed organic matter found in stagnant water is the
food for mosquito larvae. The department recommends replacing the
water in the birdbath every two to three days to prevent mosquito
The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that
homeowners “replace the water in birdbaths weekly.”
Last year, the city’s health department recorded 11 cases of
West Nile virus, including one death, of a Queens resident.
“Enforcing the health code sections that do not allow for
standing water is key to preventing the spread of this disease in
the city,” said Waheed I. Bajwa, executive director of the vector
surveillance and control office. “The standing water violations
are issued during the mosquito season to property owners whose
property has amounts of standing water and decomposing matter.”
Health officials say they take reports (calls to 311 or
through nyc.gov/health/wnv) “to track significant problem areas,”
although the department’s Web site does not encourage New Yorkers
to turn in their neighbors.
Robert G. Materson of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, believes a
neighbor did just that. A 76-year-old retired psychologist, he
was penalized with a violation for a birdbath in his backyard
that, he insists, he fills with fresh water every few days.
“Between the birds and the evaporation, there’s no water in
that sucker after a couple of days,” Mr. Materson said. “I get
four blackbirds splashing out all the water to three-quarters of
an inch and then the sparrows show up.”
The violation he received, however, said his property was
“not kept free of conditions conducive to the breeding of
mosquitoes in that murky standing water was observed in a
birdbath in the rear yard.”
Last December, a hearing examiner for the city’s Office of
Administrative Trials and Hearings weighed the inspector’s
testimony and photographs against Mr. Materson’s claim that “the
water was neither stagnant nor murky.” The examiner ruled against
Mr. Materson, explaining that no matter how conscientious he was
ordinarily, he was not present during the inspection and
“therefore, he could not have observed what the inspector claims
to have observed.”
Mr. Materson is appealing his $350 fine (he successfully
appealed an earlier violation after a hearing examiner agreed
that the birdbath itself was brown, not the water). “I sent
pictures of manhole covers outside the 94th Precinct that have as
much water as I do,” he said. Meanwhile, the offending birdbath
is still there.
“That’s my mother’s birdbath,” he said. “That’s going to
One of the other four New Yorkers whose birdbaths ran afoul
of Article 151 left the country before her case could be heard.
Another has a hearing next month.
Last September, Mr. Pomares received a lesser fine, $300,
from another hearing examiner who said the “penalty reflects
prompt correction.” Mr. Pomares said that after he got the
violation, he drilled holes in the $120 concrete birdbath to be
sure that it drained and filled it with gravel. That should keep
inspectors away, but also the robins and sparrows that used to
splash in the bath.
“Mine was clean; I was a fanatic,” he said. “But I learned
my lesson. If I had known about the law, I never would have
bought it.”

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company

Common Sense, don’t buy a birdbath without it!

  1. AirportsMadeSimple
    April 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    That is just ridiculous! I see the city – here – draining the fire hydrants to make sure the water pressure is good….a bird bath? Crazy!!! Common sense is needed in this world, indeed. What’s going on with all these idiots?

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