County officials working on property rights policy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

Rowan County officials continue to work on a policy to prevent agents of the county from trespassing on private property.

The proposed policy, was prompted in part by Salisbury-Rowan Utilities survey crews working along a proposed sewer line along Town Creek.

Some residents claim they were never notified by the city-owned utility, and others say they had no idea who clear-cut strips along their property.

County Attorney Jay Dees updated the board on his research, saying that Salisbury may have had a legal right to go onto the property. He cited General Statutes dealing with condemnation as well as a 1987 rewrite of Salisbury city charter that includes a provision giving the city the right to go on property without permission of the property owner.

Responding to questions, Dees said it unclear whether the Salisbury charter authority extends beyond the city limits.

Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell said that even if it’s legal, it doesn’t make it right.

Dees also pointed out that the state law provides that the utility or others going on property for survey or related work are responsible for damages.

Later, during a public comment period, a representative of property owners along Town Creek said they plan to seek payment for damages from Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.

Commissioner Jim Sides said if the utility or other agency can go on property and cut trees along a creek, they can go and cut trees in a front yard, violating “a basic right we think we have as Americans.”

Sides noted that some of the trees cut by the survey crews had “No Trespassing” signs posted on them.

Sides’ property near his business, Today’s Trading, was one of the tracts where survey crews cut brush and small trees.

“Has the utility apologized?” asked Commissioner Tina Hall, looking toward a group of Town Creek property owners seated in the audience.

Heads shaking in unison indicated there has been no apology.

“At the very least, the utility should apologize … say, ‘We made a mistake,’ and deal with restitution,” Hall said.

“You’re right,” Dees said. “They are required to reimburse for damage.”

Later Dees suggested that the utility would be better served by developing a good bedside manner since they must work to buy easements from the now-irritated property owners.

Earlier this month, a Salisbury utility official said letters were mailed to all property owners along the route for the sewer line.

Matt Bernhardt, utility director, said that in the future, the city will make sure landowners are contacted before crews go on their property.

Commissioners urged Dees to continue working on a policy and have it ready for the board’s Feb. 5 meeting.

The most likely version appears to be that the county would withdraw or withhold funding from any agency that went on property without the owner’s permission.

The Town Creek sewer line is a joint project of the county and the city of Salisbury.

Responding to questions, Dees said agencies or utilities can go to court to seek an order to go on property if the property owner refuses.

The policy doesn’t affect the county’s police power, which allows inspectors and others access to property.

The audience included some Davidson County residents who discovered crews drilling 5-inch diameter holes 25 feet deep on their property at the behest of the Davidson County Economic Development Commission.

The residents are apparently interested in getting Davidson County to adopt a policy regarding trespassing.