After years of putting up with scofflaws who stealthily dispose of their household trash in town dumpsters when nobody is looking, Oak Bluffs selectmen have drawn the line, threatening to impose fines of up to $1,000 on anyone caught throwing their trash into a town dumpster without permission.

The trash problems came to a head over Memorial Day weekend, when the town took the unorthodox step of removing all the town-owned dumpsters near the harbor. It was viewed as an experiment, of sorts, to see what would people would do if the dumpsters weren’t there.

And the results caught nearly everyone by surprise.

People left garbage bags and rubbish in the places where the dumpsters used to be — and in some places where they had never been — along roadsides and on sidewalks. In many cases they simply piled up the trash in a spot where the dumpster was formerly located. Business owners called town hall to complain, and several people wrote letters to the selectmen.

“The town did not look it’s best over the [Memorial Day] weekend. We heard it from business owners, residents and visitors,” said town administrator Michael Dutton. “People were upset, and they should have been. The trash was everywhere,” he said.

Health agent Shirley Fauteux said she too received a number of complaints about the trash problem over the holiday weekend.

“It was overwhelming. The town workers would clean the trash, and a few hours later there would be more,” she said.

Ms. Fauteux said the town caught one Edgartown contractor trying to dump a bunch of irrigation hoses. The town plans to send him a letter warning him that there will be consequences if he is caught dumping illegally in Oak Bluffs again. But the town will not be giving out warnings much longer, she said.

The board of health and selectmen are now in the process of drafting regulations and penalties for illegal trash dumping.

“We are not taking this lightly. This problem has gone on too long,” Ms. Fauteux said.

At the selectmen’s meeting last week, Mr. Dutton said the town could begin issuing tickets in the coming weeks with fines up to $1,000 for each offense. “Whether we start issuing tickets for $1,000, or $200, or $300 — I can tell you right now that we will start issuing tickets. That’s not an idle threat,” he said.

Harbor master Todd Alexander said one reason for the dumpster removal over Memorial Day weekend was to determine how much of the trash was coming from boats in the harbor. He said harbor officials asked boaters to put out their trash near the bulkhead twice a day, once in the morning and in the late afternoon, for pickup.

Meanwhile three of the dumpsters near the harbor were rolled down to the harbor master’s office, and the rest were removed. There were no trash problems on Friday, Mr. Alexander said, but when he got to the harbor Saturday morning around 6 a.m., there was trash piled up in the spots where the dumpsters used to be, and all along the harbor.

“People piled the trash so high along the side of the dock master’s shack across from the Wesley Hotel that it covered up the window. It was really disgusting,” he said.

When he returned to the three dumpsters near his office later on Saturday, they were overflowing.

“Someone found out where the dumpsters were, and once that first bag hit, they kept piling up. The highway department guys came down to help us out, because we couldn’t keep up, and they were pulling bags from everywhere, by the charter boats, in front of restaurants . . . everywhere,” he said.

Mr. Alexander said illegal dumping at the harbor is nothing new. In the past the town has tried several tactics to stop the practice, from putting out more trash barrels to posting signs, but nothing works. “People just don’t care. I see people all the time pull up their cars and empty their trash. Some don’t know who I am, but other people recognize me, and just go ahead and do it anyway,” he said.

He estimated that 10 per cent of the trash at the harbor comes from boaters, and the remaining 90 per cent is dumped illegally.

“If I had to guess I would say it costs the town between $10,000 and $20,000 a year to dispose of this trash. Some of that comes from out-of-towners, but a lot of it comes from people who live in town and should know better. I hate to say it, but some people in the Camp Ground are the worst offenders,” he said, adding:

“From what we learned on Memorial Day weekend, people will just leave the trash in front of the fence, or they’ll throw the trash over the fence. You’ve got to hit them in their wallet. That’s the only way they’ll stop,” he said.

Mr. Dutton said state law allows the harbor master, police officers and health agent to issue tickets for illegal dumping. He said he hopes a word of warning will go a long way toward curbing the problem.

“We have more important things to do than bust people for dumping trash. But if the situation doesn’t get better, that’s exactly what we’ll do. We are giving fair warning for people to stop throwing their trash in the dumpsters; we’re not going to turn a blind eye to this anymore. If you are caught, you will be fined. It’s that simple,” Mr. Dutton said.