OAKLAND -- Residents of Leona Heights have come together to combat illegal dumping, which has become a reoccurring problem in this quiet neighborhood, adjacent to Leona Lodge and the Leona Heights park and trailhead.

On March 29, resident Bart Chapman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years, was working from his home, when he saw an unmarked white van unlock a city of Oakland gate, with a key, at the Belfast Fire Trail and dump refuse on the adjacent privately owned property.

Chapman called the police but the authorities didn't come. "I understand," said Chapman. "They have other priorities."

The contents of the trash included mail from a couple of different families from the same address in West Oakland, back packs, CDs and even a family Bible with birth certificates in it, said Chapman, who went through the contents.

Chapman and his neighbor, Hector Preciado speculated that it looked as though someone had hired a company to clear a building that had either been abandoned or repossessed.

The city's Public Works did come and clear the refuse, despite the fact that it had been dumped on private property, but residents are concerned that they may not be so lucky next time.

The amount of open space near this neighborhood has made it a desirable target for illegal dumping over the years. One spot was so popular that Public Works finally erected a fence just north of Belfast Avenue to discourage dumping.

"It made things a lot better," Chapman reported.

What made this incident different was that the perpetrators had a key issued from the city of Oakland that allowed them to open the gate to the adjacent fire trail to gain access to the area.

"I definitely want to get to the bottom of this," said Frank Foster, the operations manager for Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful. "We are not the only department that has keys to these gates, but if someone is abusing the system, we want to look into it."

Managerial employees of several government departments have master keys to open these gates, Foster explained.

Foster said that city logs show that the Parks and Recreation Department changed the lock on the gate following the March 29 incident. Residents confirm that there have been no further illegal dumping activities at that site to date.

However, there were two incidents in the month of April on Calaveras Street and near the Interstate 580 freeway.

Alex Katz, chief of staff for the City Attorney's Office, agreed that illegal dumping is a growing problem. The office is in the process of strengthening legislation surrounding illegal dumping, stiffening fines and making it easier to enforce penalties.

The City Attorney's Office has also taken a proactive approach to investigating and tracking down offenders. "The silver lining is that people in the neighborhood have come together and are communicating and looking for solutions," Chapman said. "People are proactive. They want their neighborhood to be clean and safe."

"Dumping and crime are both on the radar for the neighborhood. We are talking about installing cameras and private security patrols," Chapman said.

"The community has talked about putting their own lock on the gate, however, that would impede, if only momentarily, emergency access," Chapman said. If the problem persists, people may do it."

Illegal dumping has been an ongoing problem throughout many neighborhoods. However, the problem appears to be acute in the Leona Heights neighborhood at this time.

"It costs the city a good deal of money to clear it (the garbage) out," Chapman said. "This is not only bad for the environment, but it's selfish."