3 Unique Laws That Left a Lasting Impact on Westchester

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One writer muses on three distinct laws, from burning leaves to cleaning up doggy doo-doo, that have helped to improve Westchester.

The Doomsday Clock says it is 100 seconds to midnight. I don’t want to bum you out, but there’s very little we can do about that — at least not on the municipal level, where the greatest existential threats are Canada geese and their profound lack of toilet training.

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to find harmony in suburban life. Solutions to quotidian problems are crafted with the public good in mind but often create unintended consequences and lawsuits. Such is the history of Westchester and the never-ending quest to improve its quality of life. Did I mention Canada geese?

In this spirit, I came up with a list of the three revolutionary laws that were designed to raise our consciousness and alter our behavior in the quest to make us safer, healthier, and more environmentally responsible.

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1. Burning Down the House

As crazy as this sounds, people used to burn autumn leaves in their backyards. It was a familiar and not unpleasant smell of fall. But the thick, aromatic smoke exacerbated respiratory ailments and sometimes out-of-control bonfires couldn’t be extinguished with just a garden hose. For instance, a random archival search reveals the story of the Gomez family of Hillside Avenue in Yonkers, who, on one crisp October day in 1964, came within a hair’s breadth of tragedy when the flames of an unattended leaf fire ran up the eaves of their two-story house. The city’s fire department saved the day.

A survey by The Westchester Action for Clean Air Committee found that most homeowners in Ossining and Yonkers thought leaf burning was a “nuisance” and would accept plastic bags as an alternative. (Note that this was long before plastic bags were considered an environmental menace.) Eventually, every municipality outlawed the leaf-burning practice. Violators were fined and worse — they suffered the ignominy of seeing their names published in the newspaper.

Such was the fate of Mrs. Isabella DeGant of Briarcliff Road in the town of Mamaroneck, who in 1966 made history as the first in the town to be fined $25 under the new law.

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2. Dog-Doo Afternoon

This is a disgusting subject, I know, but there was a time when dogs pretty much took dumps everywhere and anywhere — and nobody cleaned up after them. In those days, kids played outdoors, and quite often, to the dismay of mothers, the foul, fetid evidence of youthful abandon was found on the bottoms of their children’s shoes.

This is a disgusting subject, I know, but there was a time when dogs pretty much took dumps everywhere and anywhere — and nobody cleaned up after them.

The hero in the fight against dog waste in the 1970s was a remarkable New York City woman named Fran Lee, whose public crusade so angered some dog owners that they occasionally hurled fecal matter at her. She ridiculed cutesy terms like “doggy jewel” and called it for what it was — a health hazard.

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Lee’s message eventually broke through. Governor Hugh Carey signed a dog-waste law in 1977 that covered Buffalo and New York City, and the term “pooper-scooper” was born. Soon after, Westchester municipalities passed similar laws. White Plains was the first.

Not everyone embraced the idea right away. In 1979, the Larchmont Village Board of Trustees initially voted down a dog-waste law. At a public hearing, a gadfly argued that dogs had “constitutional rights,” just like people. One of the pro-poop trustees declared, “This is the suburbs, and people come here to enjoy their dogs!”

By Stefan Radtke

3. One Word: Plastics

Plastic junk has a way of winding up in the wrong places, like landfills, oceans, and rivers. Plastic does not break down easily; its nasty chemical components are linked to cancers, birth defects, and immune system disorders.

Americans use 100 million plastic bags a year, according to one estimate. For confirmation, you need only look at the scads of fluttering strips of plastic caught in trees after the flood waters recede from the banks of the Bronx River. Governor Andrew Cuomo once described them as “hanging like bizarre Christmas ornaments.”

In 2019, Gov. Cuomo signed a law banning plastic bags, but the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Some businesses are ignoring it. And there is some confusion about exemptions to the law, as well as concern about the acceptability of reusable bags, which are made of polyethylene.

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Saving the planet is hard.

It almost makes you long for the days when we just indiscriminately burned stuff we didn’t want.

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