SIERRA VISTA — Cassandra Weisgerber keeps the kids’ stuff on the far side of the house. It’s just one of the steps she takes on a regular basis to try and put as much separation between her children and the illegal dumping site next to their home in Fry Township.
But, there’s little that the family can do to hide the sight of the broken down trailer, junk car, piles of mattresses, shattered glass and other debris scattered around the lot next to them.
“It is a God-awful eyesore and I do worry because we’ve seen kids over there and you don’t know what you will step on or fall over,” she said. “Even just broken glass and things ... kids don’t know, they just think ‘cool, let’s dig for treasure.’”
The family moved to the home about six months ago from Montana and while Weisgerber said she hasn’t seen anyone add to the site since they’ve been there, she knows it has been an illegal dump site for some time now.
She could almost ignore the unpleasing sight of it, but her concerns for her children are not so easy to quell. She has seen several people who shouldn’t be there, from people squatting to teenagers exploring.
“Our big concern is we do have children and there is frequent stayers over there,” she said. “The most recent ones over there have been really loud in the middle of the night — midnight to 4 a.m. kind of a thing.”
“There’s a shocking amount of traffic that comes and goes from here.”
The trashed parcel next to the Weisgerber home is just one of several sites in Sierra Vista and Cochise County that has become an illegal dumping ground, a place where people go to illegally discard trash — often including bulky items like furniture, old vehicles, green waste and bags of garbage.
Referred to as “wildcat dumping,” the issue is one that costs municipalities all over the nation millions of dollars each year to clean up and mitigate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Locally, code enforcement officers and government staff receive reports of illegal dumping on a weekly basis — from trash thrown into alleyways, homeless camps that had accumulated high amounts of garbage and locations that have become dumping grounds.
Not only is there a major aesthetic component to illegal dumping, it can pose potential fire risks, health concerns and general safety threats, experts said.
Both the City of Sierra Vista and Cochise County work diligently to stay on top of the ever-present problem, but it’s a crime that’s hard to enforce, bares high costs and takes a significant amount of effort to actually clean.
Problem in Sierra Vista
City of Sierra Vista Code Enforcement Officer Jessica Vannoy said they deal with illegal dumping every week and that the problem requires vigilance. Though there is a city code that requires waste to be properly disposed in a trash receptacle or the county dump, wildcat dumping still regularly occurs.
“It happens all over the place and it’s starting to become very prominent with a lot of people dumping in alleys, washes, drainage ways, anywhere that they can do this without being easily seen,” she said.
“What we’ve found is anything from landscapers not disposing of their items all the way to people dumping furniture and belongings.”
When Vannoy receives an illegal dumping case she goes out to the location, evaluates and contacts the proper department, either refuse or streets.
Actually holding someone responsible and enforcing the codes, however, is extremely difficult.
“If there are bagged items, I will search through there and find anything to identify names, like a bill with a name and address,” Vannoy said. “I can write citations for that, but if i can’t find anything, I still have to get it cleaned up one way or another.”
“If people catch it in the act and can get a license plate number for the vehicle, it’s super helpful, but other than that, there’s not a whole lot to do.”
Community Development Director Matt McLachlan said that it’s rare they catch the person responsible for the dumping.
“Most of the cases we are unsuccessful in tracing it back to the party,” he said. “It’s very rare we are able to identify who did the dumping.”
The city has teamed with the police department in the past to set up cameras at prominent, on-going illegal dumping issues. But that technique is also difficult.
“We can work with the police department and set up surveillance cameras to try and catch stuff but even then, you never know when it’s going to occur so it’s hard to do that,” Vannoy said. “The problem is it’s random and we have a very spread out city, so it’s very hard to pinpoint where and when this is going to happen.”
Along with illegal dumping in residential areas and vacant land, the city often deals with clean ups at homeless camps.
“They tend to accumulate tons of items out there and it costs a fortune to clean this kind of stuff up,” Vannoy said. “When it comes to the camp clean ups, we do that with that heavy machinery specifically because of the drugs out there and there’s no bathrooms out there so it is something we don’t want to handle by hand.”
The city regularly uses volunteers for cleanup efforts, but when it comes to homeless camps, due to the potential health risks, they have to use staff.
Vannoy said they handle homeless camps on both a proactive basis and a responsive basis. If they receive a call about one, they investigate immediately and they also have frequent patrols to locate and keep an eye on them.
They always contact the Good Neighbor Alliance, a local homelessness resource and temporary shelter, when cleaning up a homeless camps.
“First we locate them, make contact with them, offer them services and if they choose to take the services we’ll contact services to go out there, such as the VA and Good Neighbor Alliance,” she said.
“We give them a certain period of time, usually between one week and two, to get out of there.”
County turns to community
Cochise County Zoning Administrator Dora Amaya said they see cases of illegal dumping on a weekly basis in the county as well. She said that with the county being as spread out as it is and only having two code enforcement officers, reports from residents are crucial to stay on top of the problem.
“The neighbors keep us informed,” she said. “The challenge is getting people to stop dumping and finding who’s dumping.”
Like in Sierra Vista, enforcement and catching people in the act in the county’s jurisdiction is difficult.
Often times, illegal dumping occurs on vacant, privately-owned land. So, the county will try and work with the owner to resolve the trash.
“If its on private property, we contact the owner first and try to get them to work with us and usually it’s not them doing the dumping,” Amaya said. “So we’ll try to help them out by providing roll-off containers, transfer station vouchers and even helping ourselves — if we have to go out there and just start picking up trash, we will.”
Dan Coxworth, director of community development services, said when property owners live outside town they often simply don’t know the problem is happening, so the county will do everything possible to help them.
“A lot of times for property owners who don’t live here, they don’t know people are doing this to their property until somebody says something,” he said.
“We understand that people can be victims sometimes in this way and we understand you’re a victim in this and we need to stop this now before it gets any worse ... We’ll get you a roll off and pay for your tipping fees.”
When illegal dumping occurs on state land, the county typically deals with the problem themselves, as the state doesn’t have many resources available to help.
“They leave it up to the local jurisdiction,” Coxworth said. “The state doesn’t have the resources and at the end of the day, this is our community and we try to keep our community as clean as possible.”
ADOT fights expensive litter
There are several state highways in the county that are managed by the Arizona Department of Transportation. While ADOT doesn’t deal with “illegal dumping” in the traditional term, they spend $4 million a year on cleaning litter from the side of Arizona highways, officials said.
ADOT spokesman Garin Groff explained that they don’t see as many instances of bulky trash or debris, but they see piles of smaller trash thrown out the windows of vehicles.
To deal with the problem, ADOT has an active Adopt-a-Highway program with 700 groups throughout the state who do volunteer cleanups on their stretch of highway.
Groff said they recently picked up 13,000 trash bags on 15 miles of highway collected by these groups which saved taxpayers about $500,000.
“A lot of effort has gone into getting the word out on our Adopt-a-Highway program and encouraging people to keep trash in their vehicle until they get out and can throw it away,” he said.
They also have a litter hotline and website where people can report when they see someone litter on the road.
“If we have a license plate, ADOT will send a letter to the registered owner reminding them they could get a $500 fine if they are spotted by law enforcement and then in that letter we include a trash bag as a friendly reminder to keep trash in the car.”
Last year, they sent out 1,200 letters based on the litter hotline.
While there is a common mentality of “other people dumped trash here, so I can too” with illegal dumping, particularly areas that have become known trash spots, it can bring legal consequences.
Vannoy said that it can lead to criminal charges and their current fine is up to $250.
Coxworth said the county will send out letters to try and get compliance, but if it doesn’t work they can send out a hearing officer and eventually bring it to court.
If someone does not comply, the county can charge a fine of $750, plus $50 a day, but Coxworth said court is often the option with the greatest results. The letters and administrative orders are not legally binding, and not everyone complies
“The hearing officer is ... not very powerful, so then we say, ‘OK, we need to go to court, need a court order to allow us as the county to be on that property to clean it up,” he said. “There is no teeth to it (letters) but going to court, there is teeth to that.”
Community is crucial
Both the county and city spend thousands of dollars each year to deal with various types of illegal dumping. Because of the sheer scope of the problem, the cost, the difficulty in enforcing and the manpower needed, help from the community to find and resolve illegal dumping is crucial.
“The county is really open for people who want to clean up their community and we are here to help provide some resources,” Coxworth said. “We know there’s a lot of areas we need to clean up, but we don’t always have resources to organize those kind of things.
“The people who live in these communities care the most about those communities and can find the other people in those communities to help clean it up.”
Getting sites cleaned up as soon as possible is of the essence, as the longer it accumulates trash, the more people will dump there.
“Once people see one area to dump in, they are going to continue and hone in on it,” Vannoy said. “We try to clean it up as quickly as we can and we want our city looking nice and clean.”
“The more people who can keep an eye out and let us know about it, the more proactive about it we can be.”
Community cleanups are one of the best methods the county and city have to get significant amounts of trash removed. These are sometimes initiated by citizens or groups.
The city and county are willing to do whatever they can to help when someone wants to start a cleanup, often providing rolls offs or dumpsters, supplies, physical help and taking care of the tipping fee or actual disposal.
The city works with property owners to clear their land of brush and trees which obstruct views and make an area more attractive for illegal dumping. They recommend residents try and keep alleys and their properties as trimmed back as possible. The city also clears areas they own in an attempt to deter dumpers.
The county has a hazard abatement fund that can be used towards clean ups.
Along with the cleanups, Vannoy runs an adopt an area program in Sierra Vista, where groups do periodic cleanups of specified areas. A group of students from Ft. Huachuca picks up trash every Tuesday morning for her.
The city and county understand that the motivation behind illegal dumping is often financial or logistical — not everyone can afford the county tipping fee or a vehicle to carry large amounts of trash.
So, officials have launched cost-effective programs available to try and reduce the prevalence of wildcat dumping.
The city offers a special pickup program where people can purchase a yellow tag for $20 to be placed on bulky items to be picked up by the city. They also have dumpsters available to rent.
For those who are municipal refuse customers, the city will pick up green waste that is bagged with no branches over 15 inches in diameter or over five feet long at no cost.
A constant work in progress
Standing near the illegal dumping site next to her home, Weisgerber attested to the efforts of the county when it comes to cleaning up the mess. She said that she knows they are trying, but the property is tied up in the courts.
“The county is trying and they’ve been really good about staying in communication with us,” she said. The issue is currently being handled by the county attorney’s office, but it could be a while before any cleaning starts, she said.
“I understand the courts take time ... It will be at least 30 days there and once filed 30 days to clean it up, takes about 30 days again for the ‘we really mean it’ notice, so now we’re looking at maybe the end of summer.”
The property did not have its taxes paid for some time, so the county purchased it with plans to clean it and auction it off. However, the property owner bought the tax lien and the county is now in the process of going to court to get the site cleaned.
Weisgerber’s family is working to renovate their own home and look forward to the day the site next door is cleaned.
“I mean, it looks scary as it is, but you don’t know what’s under everything,” she said. “And, when you have people staying over there you don’t know what kind of people someone might run into and that kind of thing is a little scary, especially for us,” she said, as her daughter Sophia, 11, looked on.
On June 15, the city will have a dumpster day event for people to dispose of bulky items. There will be roll-off dumpsters at a current problem site at 211 N. Third St. from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. They will also have sanitation trucks rolling through the area.
The city has hired an additional code enforcer officer which they hope will allow them to be more proactive on code enforcement, such as illegal dumping.
The Sierra Vista city council will be looking at potential increases to some of the fees for their special refuse services, such as the dumpster rentals, later this month.
McLachlan said time will tell if increases to fees could lead to increases in illegal dumping, but the city would be prepared to increase fines for illegal dumping if need be.
They are offering the dumpster day and other resources to keep encouraging residents to dispose of trash properly.
Illegal dumping is a problem that requires community help to address. Both the city and county welcome and encourage residents to contact them and report illegal dumping. They want to help keep this community clean.
“You don’t know what people are dumping. You dont know what’s in those bags,” Vannoy said. “So it is a safety issue and a health concern. It’s an attractive nuisance for kids and that’s something I take to heart — that’s why we are on it as much as we can.”