The bill that landed on Bob Snyder's desk came from the Los Angeles Public Works Department and asked for $4,000--the amount the city spent to clear piles of trash from a 160-foot-long dirt stretch of Eubank Street, next to the company Snyder runs in the Wilmington Industrial Park.
Snyder says he is not going to pay it.
He is among a group of Wilmington property owners who are challenging the city's attempts to bill them for clearing trash from unimproved, so-called "paper" streets. The streets were cleaned as part of an ongoing city-mandated cleanup of Wilmington Industrial Park.
Snyder, who is operations manager for Cooper & Brain Inc., an independent oil producer, said he doesn't mind paying for the cleanup of his company's private property. He and others agree that the first phase of the cleanup, which was completed in June, has been a great improvement for the industrial park, which was once described in a city report as the biggest illegal dumping ground in Los Angeles.
But they think paying to clean the streets is unfair, even though the city says it is perfectly legal.
"I have no rights to tell anybody what to do on that public street," said Snyder. "We had homeless people living there--I had no rights to tell them not to live there, but I was responsible for the debris. . . . That's the part I think is so unfair."
Added Bob Tieman, another property owner who has been billed: "I think it's very unfair that we should pay for people who have dumped here for years and years."
Bill Veatch, president of the Wilmington Industrial Park Tenants and Owners Assn., said that of the 40 members of his group, he did not know of any who favored the city's policy. And, he predicted, none of the other 200 property owners in the park--many of them absentee landlords to small lots--would favor it either.
"The question," Veatch said, "is why should they pay for the cleanup of a city street? It's as simple as that."
Actually, says Richard Haglund, a lot-cleaning superintendent for the city, it is not that simple.
According to Haglund, California law gives cities the authority to require landowners to clean city property that is adjacent to their own. Over the years, said Haglund, courts have interpreted the law to include unimproved city streets.
Haglund said that "in 99.9% of the cases," the adjacent landholder actually owns the paper street--the city simply has an easement to develop it. If the city is not exercising its right to the street, Haglund said, it becomes the responsibility of the adjacent landholder.
And though he admits that the landholders may not build on the streets, he said they can seek permission from the Board of Public Works to fence it off to prevent dumping and keep out transients.
"We don't do this arbitrarily," Haglund said of the billing. "There is a solid legal basis and a solid practical basis for looking to the adjoining owner."
Since the cleanup, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the park, along with some private property owners, have been fencing off the paper streets. The tenants and owners association has also hired private security guards to patrol the area, and it is common to see hand-painted "No Dumping" signs posted throughout the park.
Began in 1985
The initiative to clean up Wilmington Industrial Park began in 1985, after the newly formed tenants and owners association complained about the dumping. Harbor area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores responded by asking the city to finance an intensive cleanup campaign in Wilmington.
City officials studied the issue, and recommended that the city appropriate $500,000 for private contractors to clear out the debris. They appropriated the money in the summer of 1986, but the program did not begin until spring of this year because of bidding delays.
The owners were given 30 days to clear their land and the adjacent streets; after that, the city's contractor, Falcon Disposal Service in Wilmington, did the work. The city then billed the landowners for the cleanup, as well as an additional fee for administrative costs to run the program.
So far, Haglund said, 12 property owners have been billed more than $15,000 for work done in the first phase of the cleanup, which encompassed the southwest quadrant of the industrial park, bounded by Broad Avenue, E Street and Alameda Street.
Most of the cleanup will occur during the second phase, which will begin Thursday and cover the rest of the park. Property owners have been notified that they have until then to clear their land.
Of the 12 bills sent, Haglund said, only one has been paid, although he said he is certain checks will come in for at least another two--those sent to the CRA and Exxon. Haglund said he expects other bills to be tied up in appeals to the Board of Public Works; if those appeals are turned down, the lot owners have the right to appeal to the City Council.
Landowners like Snyder and Tieman say they fear that if they don't pay, their bills will be tacked onto their city taxes.