Editorial: Landowners feel violated

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of that ruined tenement.”

— Sir William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, 1763

The notion that a man’s home is his castle isn’t just a quaint figure of speech. It encapsulates a basic belief that underpins laws regulating government intrusion into citizens’ homes or their private lives, providing they’re law-abiding lives. It’s chiseled into our Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment which speaks to the right “to be secure” in our houses and persons, as well as affirmed through ordinances against trespassing.

The Bill of Rights speaks directly to “unreasonable searches and seizures,” but you don’t have to be a student of history to understand that the Founding Fathers’ apprehensions weren’t limited to those specific acts, nor did they believe that a citizen’s domain extends only to the doorstep. The castle stands sentinel over its surrounding grounds; the home often anchors a larger homestead. The poorest patch of ground merits the same protection as a mansion’s gated estate.

Let’s remember those concepts as county officials address complaints from citizens that utility crews, survey parties and workers from other agencies have come onto their property without permission and, in some cases, cleared brush and cut down trees. Some of the residents are upset because of work along Town Creek as Salisbury-Rowan Utilities does preliminary legwork for a sewer line. But this issue isn’t limited to one project or one particular area. Residents also suffer intrusions or trespasses involving illegal dumping, roaming animals, noisy dirt-bikes, all-terrain vehicles or overly aggressive right-or-way clearing. At the same meeting where Rowan landowners voiced their concerns, a contingent of farmers from Davidson County observed the proceedings because they’re upset that the Davidson Economic Development Commission came onto their property and drilled holes to assess dirt compaction. When once-rural areas feel the creep of suburbia and denser development, these issues are likely to flare more frequently.

As Commissioners Chad Mitchell and Tina Hall pointed out, this isn’t simply a matter of parsing legal codes but of doing what’s right and treating citizens — and their property — with respect. For most of us, our homeplace is a haven, and we don’t like feeling violated within our own boundaries. Protocol is important. When work crews need access to private property, landowners should be notified in advance. They have a right to know who’s coming onto their property, when they’re coming and for what purpose. If the work also potentially involves disturbing the property, they certainly have a right to know that and to be given a fair hearing if they believe they are going to sustain material damages.

Citizens no longer have to worry about intrusions from the forces of the king. With better communication and some clarification of policy, they could feel more secure against surprise incursions from work crews who leave behind trampled and hacked evidence of their visits.