Of all the places to beautify, Guadalupe Ruiz had to pick the Calabasas Landfill.
Ruiz, 50, who lives in a spacious three-bedroom home at the edge of the trash dump, has cut a hole in the fence, installed a gate and built a rock garden on part of the Los Angeles County-owned landfill.
"It was so ugly," Ruiz said of the dry brush and windblown pieces of trash he cleared away to make room for seven trees, a gravel patio and terraces of rocks and railroad ties.
But now county officials say they plan to file a lawsuit to force Ruiz to stop his landfill antics, which they say include letting chickens run loose and target-shooting with a shotgun.
"I've always thought this was a strange situation," said Dave Bachtel, the county's site engineer for the landfill.
Ruiz began his work on the landfill area several years ago, but fears about legal liability, and neighbors' complaints about the chickens and the parking of a beat-up Ruiz truck on the landfill, prompted the county Sanitation Districts board last month to authorize its legal counsel to sue Ruiz. "They didn't realize how serious it was," said Joan Buehring, president of the Community Assn. of Saratoga Hills.
The association also alerted the county because one of Ruiz's neighbors had trouble selling her home after Ruiz landscaped a small part of her property, Buehring said. The sale was on hold until Ruiz agreed to vacate the area, Buehring said.
The part of the landfill that Ruiz is accused of encroaching upon is a grass- and brush-covered flood-control basin that has not been used for dumping.
Ruiz's 20 chickens and a rooster drew the ire of the association because farm animals are banned by a restrictive covenant agreed to by Ruiz and other Saratoga Hills residents, Buehring said.
But Ruiz maintains that the claim he staked on the landfill has led to a significant improvement. The brush he cleared was a fire hazard, and he got tired of looking at the paper and plastic blown to the area from other parts of the dump, he said.
"There was garbage," he said. "I didn't put any garbage there. I cleaned it up."
Ruiz planted seven small trees on the landfill's property and built two small terraces, one of rocks and one of railroad ties. The small rooster cage he built on the landfill sits empty, its occupant having been recently devoured by a hungry coyote, he said.
Buehring acknowledges that Ruiz has improved the landfill "in a sense," but says that doesn't make it right. "All the other houses along there haven't built anything on other people's property," she said.
On part of a privately owned meadow between his property and the landfill, Ruiz has developed a botanical garden of raspberry bushes, fruit trees, vegetables and assorted other plants, along with an area for the chickens. On the hillside he has more railroad ties forming a staircase to a white gazebo.
The gazebo offers a stunning vista including the Santa Monica Mountains, the Saratoga Hills housing tract in which he lives, and, of course, the landfill.
The county's lawsuit will be aimed at clearing Ruiz's materials from the landfill only, Bachtel said, and not the private meadow, whose owner could not be reached for comment.
The legal liability of "unauthorized people" walking around on the landfill and having access to active dumping areas there was only one of the reasons for the planned lawsuit, Bachtel said.
Ruiz, a building contractor, does store some items on the landfill that might be defined loosely as, well, junk. Sections of white metal fencing are strewn on the hillside along with two antique street lights that Ruiz said were given to him by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) after Ruiz did some contracting work for Robbins.
Landfill officials are concerned that a torrential rain could wash those items away and create a problem with how they could be cleaned up, Bachtel said.
Spent shotgun shells also can be found on the flood-control basin. Ruiz said he and his son sometimes take potshots at aluminum cans there. The target practice has taken place near a monitoring well that sanitation officials use to check for liquid waste contamination, Bachtel said.
"It's a concern to us if those wells are contaminated by somebody from above or destroyed or damaged in any way," Bachtel said. Officials also worry about someone getting hurt from the shooting, he said.
Moreover, Bachtel said, "little bit by little bit it keeps growing. I think he would continue to go farther in. I don't see any indication that he'd stop."
Ruiz does not understand all the fuss. He says he will comply with the county's demands but wishes that the gravel patio, the trees and the railroad ties--much of what he has installed on landfill property--could be left alone.
"It cost me a lot of money and a lot of work," he said. "And it's prettier than what was there before, isn't it?"