Jon Horton leads the way through thick brush that covers an old city parks trail near Costilla Street. It's a hot summer day, and the shade of the trees and breeze off Shooks Run Creek provide a welcome respite. The area almost feels like a secret garden.
But a few steps in, the problems with this section of city parks, private and railroad property make themselves clear. Old clothes clog the creek, and by the time the trail dead-ends at an old stone railroad bridge, the trash is everywhere: clothes, broken TVs, shopping carts, decaying mattresses, tires.
There are campsites, too. Some are just mattresses; others tents, including one with a stroller sitting outside it. There are even primitive shelters made of branches and brush spread out across this yellow plain that runs behind the Lowell neighborhood and the downtown Police Operations Center.
Emerging from their shelters, people stare at us — some curiously, a few aggressively. Horton, a 73-year-old bear of a man with an impressively bushy white mustache, leans down to my ear. If it makes me feel any better, he says, he has a gun.
This is Horton's regular walk. A disabled Vietnam vet, he lives nearby in subsidized housing.
"I volunteer to accompany people in my building to take walks with me, but their faces turn pale," he says. "It is considered a very dangerous place."
He isn't fazed. He was homeless once himself, and he feels for others, especially veterans, who have ended up on the streets. He's even built a rapport with some of the people here. But he doesn't care for the garbage that sullies the landscape and likely attracts vermin.
The vacant property, much of which is owned by 78-year-old Tom Doxey of Penrose, has been a problem as long as Tom Wasinger, Colorado Springs' Code Enforcement supervisor, can remember. It was cleaned fairly recently, but Doxey says it doesn't take long for the garbage and campers to return.
Until 2001, Doxey used the property to store materials for his asphalt company. But even in those days, he says, people would come here late at night, cut the fences, and dump their junk. Over the years, Doxey says, he's tried various barricades, even concrete blocks that weighed thousands of pounds, only to have them moved or destroyed.
He's currently having the land surveyed and hopes to sell it, though he says the dumping and camping don't help. In his opinion, the city ought to take more of a role in policing the area.
"If the city has a no-trespassing law, they've got to enforce it," says Doxey, who has given CSPD the required legal permission to remove trespassers from his land. "If they're not enforcing it, they're in the wrong."
The Doxey property is one of many public and private lands across the city that have become magnets for illegal dumping — a persistent and difficult problem that also often attracts other criminal activity as well as homeless camps.
Sometimes the perpetrators leave yard waste, old appliances, ripped-out materials from a remodel, or other household items. Other times it's construction materials that appear to have come from a major job. Still other times, it's homeless campers causing a mess. And then there are scrappers, who disassemble appliances and other items, even old mattresses, take the metals to a recycler, and leave the rest.
The sites that dumpers frequent are scattered.
There's the public property on Troy Hill between Platte Avenue and Airport Road.
There's the land behind the old Rite Aid store at 2730 E. Platte Ave.
There's the old Rock Island Railroad tracks near North El Paso and East Harrison streets.
And there are two properties on East Fountain Boulevard near Evergreen Cemetery.
There are others, too, and creek beds, dead-end roads, industrial areas and land behind vacant buildings seem particularly vulnerable. And the problem, city officials say, has only gotten worse in recent years.
Who's to blame?
Illegal dumpers are rarely caught, Wasinger says. Security cameras can be helpful at times, as can envelopes with addresses left in heaps of garbage. But cameras often fail to catch license-plate numbers on dark nights, and envelopes are only circumstantial evidence. Other times, a witness might call in with a plate number, but won't want to go to the trouble of testifying against someone who might be dangerous, or a neighbor.
Wasinger says once the trash is there, if it's on private property, like Doxey's, the owner is responsible for cleaning it, even if he or she must pay to have it removed and properly dumped. If it's on city property, Code Enforcement uses its in-house crew, plus people with court-ordered community service, to pick it up.
Code Enforcement sends out notices to property owners, generally asking that the trash be dealt with within 10 days. If it's not, sometimes the city will clean up the mess and put an assessment on the property to cover costs, including labor, dumping fees, administration, and the cost of an officer posting notices. Those assessments must be paid along with property taxes.
For instance, 2703 E. Fountain Blvd., owned by local Rickie Nelson, has an assessment on it for $526.68. Another of Nelson's properties, at 2125 E. Fountain Blvd., has assessments and liens worth $10,124.35.
If the problem persists, Code Enforcement can issue a summons for the owner to appear in court to face fines of up to $2,500 and/or up to 189 days in jail for a single misdemeanor conviction. That tool has rarely been used in the past, but Wasinger says he's stepping up use of penalties in an effort to solve the city's growing problem. "If we have to clean up a property more than once or twice," he says, "we're going to have to write a summons."
While that may seem harsh, it's also common nationwide, says Dee Cunningham. She's the executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, the local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, which does clean-ups around the city, mostly on public property (see "Spring cleaning," p. 17). Cunningham says that at a recent national conference, representatives from around the nation described similar problems, and penalties, in their hometowns.
But to City Councilor Helen Collins, who is Nelson's district representative and has spoken to him about the dumping, it seems unfair. She says it's not right to blame property owners for problems they don't cause — a subject she's broached in Council meetings.
"I don't like the idea of Code Enforcement going around giving people a hard time," she says.
Collins adds that the only solution to the dumping problem is to catch the perpetrators. She also thinks community-wide clean-ups, with the city providing Dumpsters, are a good idea, and hopes to plan one in the southeast part of the city this spring.
But Wasinger says he's limited in his ability to address the problem. The city currently has seven full-time employees and three full-time grant-funded positions in Code Enforcement, which addresses a range of issues in addition to dumping. (In the summer, the city also has a new program that puts one to four part-time police employees to work addressing weed complaints.)
The budget for clean-ups is small. The city has just $25,000 a year to spend on "property abatement," and that money is largely used to pay dump fees related to clean-ups on public properties. The city also has $22,000 a year to clean up private properties, with the expectation that the money will be repaid.
While the city can't recommend any service to property owners, Code Enforcement officers mention a couple of local churches that will do clean-ups in certain situations, as well as the new Blight to Bright nonprofit ("Makeovers for eyesores," News, Dec. 11, 2013), which seeks to buy and clean up run-down properties.
Mark Davis, the senior maintenance technician in charge of city clean-ups, says he feels for property owners, but they still have to be held accountable.
"We understand it's not their fault [dumpers] are doing this; it's a crime," he says. "But we can't use taxpayer funds to clean it up."
'A never-ending battle'
Rickie Nelson's 1992 sky blue Cadillac is parked in an otherwise deserted lot, rain pounding its windshield.
Nearby is a vacant restaurant of 1970s vintage, its once-cream walls now patched with gray, blue and yellow paint to hide graffiti. Red tiles slide from its roof. Along the backside, a large pile of tires, clothes, broken chairs, foam and household items are heaped near the remains of sawed-off lamp posts. Stretches of brown-yellow fields, soaked and sagging with water, stretch beyond the pitted lot, hugging the Martin Luther King bypass.
Nelson, 63, has a look of mid-century pragmatism — large, sturdy glasses, a simple collared shirt, slacks and cotton jacket. He stares at the scene with an expression of puzzled resignation. "It's like a never-ending battle," he says.
Nelson owns this stretch of land at 2703 E. Fountain Blvd., and one just down the road at 2125 E. Fountain Blvd., with a similarly vacant restaurant. Both have been plagued for years with crime, vandals and incessant illegal dumping. Together, he says, the problems have prevented him from being able to lease his buildings, and caused him to go into tens of thousands of dollars of debt. He says he lost his home and his two cars. Thankfully, years ago he had enough money to buy his dad, who has since passed away, that Cadillac. "It's a good thing I had the car," he says.
Code Enforcement has issued Nelson order after order to remove the junk from his property. The city has also cleaned up the property when he failed to, and put assessments on to cover the costs, which in some cases have transferred to liens.
"It's a big financial stress, when they can't catch people who do this," he says, "and then they say you're the repeat offender."
The mess has not endeared Nelson to his across-the-street neighbor, Amy's Donuts. The owner, who gives his name only as Chin, says the trash doesn't affect his business much, but it's ugly. Nelson, he claims, treats his property "like he doesn't care, and that's why everyone else treats it that way."
It wasn't always like this for Nelson. When he was younger, his father owned huge stretches of a former farm near Evergreen Cemetery. He developed them and sold them off in the 1970s, creating what were, at the time, nice apartment buildings, as well as a mausoleum and one-story nursing facilities that provided an alternative to dour institutions. The nursing homes were seen as so innovative that Anton Nelson and his partner had plenty of business building similar structures across the state and nation.
The two buildings Nelson's dealing with today once were chain steak-and-seafood restaurants. They were leased out over the years to other restaurateurs before becoming vacant in 2004 and 2006. That's when vandals began targeting the buildings, making it impossible to lease them, he says. Before the recession, Nelson had hoped to turn the vacant ground around the properties into a grocery store and shopping center, he says, but the plan fell through and he's had trouble securing commercial loans since. He spends most of his time caring for his 96-year-old mother and says he just wants to lease the restaurants so he'll have a source of income.
To do that, he'd need to pick up the trash that reappears at regular intervals. And he'd need to replace all that's been stolen, including restaurant equipment and fixtures, plumbing, utilities equipment and all the wiring — vandals, he says, have even ripped wiring out of the ground. He'd also have to put in new inner walls where they've been torn out, and properly patch holes in the outer walls and roof where criminals have plowed through to avoid heavy doors. Nelson has tried to make some of those repairs, he says, only to see vandals steal and destroy the work.
He's tried security measures. He says he and a former property manager check the site regularly, but usually only find the evidence of past crimes. His alarm system and lights don't work because the wiring is gone — and besides, many of the light poles have been sawed down, likely to be sold for scrap. He says he's put a fence around one building to prevent dumping, only to find it gone without a trace before he could get gates made for it.
He put up a fancy security camera system. It was stolen.
He's contacted city councilors, including Collins, to ask if the city can put police-owned cameras on his property, but his request has yet to be granted. The city has provided signs recently that warn against dumping, but Nelson says people ignore them.
"I have to take a loan out now because the trash now has cost me about $90,000," he says, adding, "I can't keep going for loans; loans are not the answer for business."
Even when businesses were operating in the buildings, Nelson faced crime. In the '90s, he says, he was once held down nearby by robbers who put a gun to his head.
Over the past two years, police records show 43 calls for service to 2125 E. Fountain Blvd., for everything from burglary to "crime pattern" to sexual assault. 2703 E. Fountain Blvd., has had eight such calls in the same time.
On the day we met, Nelson called the police again after noticing that a heavy metal cover for a grease trap and a utility box were missing from one of his businesses. He stood outside with the officers, pointing to spaces from which the items were missing, his jacket soaking up the freezing rain.
Looking for solutions
Best anyone can tell, the main reason people dump is to avoid the hassle and cost of disposing of their junk legally.
Legal disposal often involves putting trash in a covered truck, to keep it from flying out, and taking it to one of the city's private dumps or disposal areas.
Some are relatively inexpensive for certain items. Geocycle recycles tires for $1.25 apiece. Waste Management's Fountain dump will take a trash load of less than 1,500 pounds for $27. Rocky Top Resources will dispose of a load of branches for $10. The El Paso County Household Hazardous Waste Facility will accept household paint, some electronics, recyclables and certain chemicals from local residents at no charge.
But prices rise for certain materials. At Waste Management, an appliance that needs decommissioning costs $50 to dump; a TV larger than 27 inches, $38. A mattress or box spring runs $27.50.
If there were more of a chance of being apprehended, dumpers might think twice. Two misdemeanors apply to dumping, and under a change to law that is currently being codified by the city, either can be punished by up to a $2,500 fine and up to 189 days in jail.
Still, Wasinger says: "Other than have someone sit out there 24/7, I really don't know if there's a way to stop it. I don't think there's a fix. I think it's something we can try to curtail."
Individual victories can be won, however.
Apex Sports has had a cement warehouse in a tucked-away corner of the Hillside neighborhood since the 1970s. Over the years, people occasionally dumped their trash behind the building, using an alley that snakes behind it. But in the last year, the problem became outrageous. Owner and general manager Mike Stokes recalls that trash would appear daily, sometimes two or three truckloads' worth.
It seemed the Apex warehouse had become the neighborhood dumping ground — a place for yard waste, old furniture and debris from remodeling jobs. It didn't take long for homeless people to start calling the property home, hauling mattresses and couches there to sleep on. Stokes said his employees would tow it away, but junk returned almost immediately.
"I know it's just people in the local area who don't have a lot of income," Stokes says. "So they just can't afford to go to the dump."
These days, however, the warehouse grounds are tidy. Stokes says that's a result of cooperating with the city to come up with a solution that worked.
The city first tried installing a security camera on the property, at its own expense — something it was willing to do because the alley is a city right-of-way. The camera didn't work well, however, because the area is dark. Footage showed trucks pulling up in the middle of the night, but the plates weren't readable.
So they made a deal to try another solution. Apex spent $3,600 to install a tall fence at either entrance to the alley, and added huge dirt mounds on either end of the fence to prevent vehicles from getting in. The city agreed to add barricades, and to ignore the trash while the fence was being installed. After it was up, the city paid for Dumpsters for the trash, and Apex provided the clean-up crew. When it was all remediated, the city also installed "no dumping" signs on the property.
"CSPD were super good at working with us and cutting us some slack," Stokes says, adding that dumping hasn't been a problem since.
The improvements at Apex exemplify what the city would like to see happen at other dump sites. Wasinger says the first step is for owners to get that no-trespassing letter from the police department, which allows police to kick unauthorized people off the property.
That includes homeless campers. Homeless Outreach Team police officer Brett Iverson says he mostly focuses on issues on public lands, but also tries to address homeless camps on private land if owners have filled out the appropriate paperwork.
Iverson says his team checks some private properties regularly, both to prevent dumping and to help homeless people find nonprofits that can help them. While they can't act as private police, and violent crime takes priority, Iverson says he and his team do want to keep an eye on camps on private land. Trash and camps attract other crime, he says: "It's the broken-window theory: If all the windows were broken out on [a] building, obviously no one cares about it, so why not come and destroy it more?"
Aside from police, some of the best ways to protect property include signs, fences, security systems and barricades.
Of course, they don't always work and they aren't always practical. Both Doxey and Nelson say fences and barricades they've erected have been torn down. And both of those properties also have the disadvantage of being large and relatively flat, meaning a huge amount of fencing would be required to truly block off the area.
Cunningham says a better solution is often just to put something — a development, an urban garden, anything — on the property.
"Once something is there it's very, very rarely ever vandalized or dumped on again," she says.
What might be the best solution is forbidden by city code. Both Cunningham and Wasinger say that the fact that people pay for private trash pick-up and disposal creates an incentive to dump. In other cities, people are often required to pay for trash pick-up done as a municipal service. Often, people are given a chance regularly to dispose of large items without an extra charge.
"I think people just don't understand that they have to take responsibility for hauling their own trash if they don't have a trash hauler," Cunningham says.
Wasinger says he, too, thinks municipal trash hauling would help solve the problem of dumping. Pipe dreams aside, though, the city faces a problem that doesn't look like it's going anywhere.
In fact, as Stokes was driving through the Hillside neighborhood, he paused at a dilapidated, abandoned house near his warehouse. Soon after he got his fences up, he says, he noticed familiar loads of trash had begun to appear in its yard.