Norm Gritton's undeveloped 5 acres in Meadowbrook could be a gold mine one day. Right now, though, it's a magnet for illicit midnight dumpers -- an eyesore dotted with piles of car, truck and tractor tires.
"It's been ongoing for years and years," said Gritton, who had to rent a trailer and remove more than a ton of tires and garbage earlier this year. "It was very frustrating, especially after we got cited. That just adds insult to injury."
The area near Lake Elsinore, laced with dirt roads that have no streetlights, is among the numerous illegal dumps throughout the rural areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Property owners have to pay thousands of dollars to clean up their land or face fines -- and they're sick of it. So are state, county and city officials who are cracking down on illegal dumping by installing hidden infrared cameras at popular dumping grounds and seizing the cars of drive-by dumpers.
"It's everywhere. There is not one area left untrashed," said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley. "It's people who don't want to pay for trash pickup, who are too lazy or too cheap or too careless. Some of it is economic. Most of it is people just having a callous disregard for other people's property, and also public health and safety."
It's a widespread problem partly because of the size of Riverside County, which contains 7,208 square miles, from the Colorado River to within 14 miles of the Pacific Ocean bordering Orange and Los Angeles counties.
To patrol the unincorporated parts of the county, there are 28 code-enforcement officers, who investigate not only dumping, but also zoning disputes, abandoned vehicles, outside storage and other violations, said Jim Miller, county director of building and safety.
In the desert, there are massive dumps used by residents for decades.
On the Soboba Indian reservation, tribal workers sift through trash looking for discarded mail bearing names or addresses to determine who dumped it. Trash is dumped randomly on rural parcels near developed areas, such as Good Hope or Mead Valley, near Perris. Near Lake Mathews, there's a spot nicknamed "Cadillac Hill," where stolen and stripped cars are abandoned.
"[The problem is] huge. It's much more visible than it used to be, just because we've had such a huge influx of people," Miller said. "We're handling the bigger dumping areas -- places people just have a tendency to go back and back to. On a broader scale, across the county, it's just impossible to do."
In the desert, federal and state regulators must deal with massive "legacy" dumps that were used for decades. Some spill into sensitive lands, such as the habitat of the desert tortoise.
"People view the desert as a wasteland, which it's not," said Russell Scofield, a habitat restoration coordinator for the federal Bureau of Land Management. "It's very fragile, and it's a valuable ecosystem."
Federal and state regulators have cleaned nine large dumps since 2000. The largest project took several weeks in 2001 near Chambliss in San Bernardino County and cost $255,000. Workers hauled away 1,484 tons of trash, 45 tons of hazardous soil, six tons of asbestos, 12 tons of metal, 240 tons of railroad ties and other wood and four tons of tires.
"Once you clean it up, it's probably going to stay clean," Scofield said. "The problem is, they'll find somewhere else to dump."
Ashley knows from experience. He lives on the rural edge of Perris, on hilly land dotted with olive trees. One night last summer, he came home and discovered that someone had dumped couches, a mattress, a chest of drawers, a TV and other trash in front of his house.
"When I saw that, I felt violated. And very angry," he said.
Perris requires that homes have trash pickup, so Ashley called his trash company, and they hauled it away for free.
But victims who don't have trash pickup have to remove the rubbish themselves, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Earlier that year, Ashley had convened an illegal-dumping task force, which came up with proposals to combat the problem. He has sponsored a county ordinance requiring trash pickup in some unincorporated parts of his district. Residents who provide landfill receipts showing they take their own trash to the dump can opt out. Community workshops on the proposal will be held this summer.
Ashley also plans to propose an ordinance to seize the cars of people caught illegally dumping, a measure that has proven successful in Calimesa and Riverside, and in Colton and Fontana in neighboring San Bernardino County.
A Rubidoux woman recently caught dumping in Mead Valley told investigators that she chose that spot because she knew her car wouldn't be taken if she were caught. She had driven from her home to Riverside to pick up day workers, then back home to load a truck, then to Mead Valley to dump. Had she taken her trash to the transfer station in Rubidoux, it would have cost her $10.