Do not enter: County to prevent trespassing by utility personnel

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

County commissioners are preparing to help property owners with “No trespassing” signs — particularly for agents of the county.

Commissioners want a new policy to prevent trespassing — a policy that clearly targets Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.

The top official of the utility company controlled by the city of Salisbury said Friday the policy of dealing with landowners has already been changed.

Commissioner Jim Sides expressed astonishment Thursday night at the prospect of agents of the county going on private property to do surveys or other work — without asking permission of the property owner.

He cited his own experience with Salisbury-Rowan Utilities which has has survey crews in the field along Town Creek. The county is partnering with the the city of Salisbury to install a new sewer line along Town Creek on the east side of I-85 to China Grove.

Sides said the survey crew came on his property, cleared a path — and never asked him.

He cited several adjacent landowners who had a similar experience. In one case, Sides said the crews clear cut a wide swath including trees — without any permission from the landowner who owns a tract along Town Creek from Peach Orchard to Peeler roads.

Sides cited a recent meeting at the county office with County Manager Bill Cowan, Salisbury city officials including City Manager David Treme and Assistant City Manager Matt Bernhardt, who is director of the city’s utility.

Sides said he asked repeatedly what law gives the city the right to enter private property without permission.

Sides said he still doesn’t have an answer.

He also quoted Salisbury-Rowan Utility officials as saying they cut brush, undergrowth and anything less than three-inches in diameter.

Salisbury-Rowan Utilities has already changed its policy for dealing with property owners according to Bernhardt. He said the city has previously sent letters notifying all property owners that might be affected and provided a phone number for them to call.

“We’ve always done letters … we’ve changed our policies, there absolutely has to be contact (with the landowner),” said Bernhardt.

“We do not and are not interested in going on property without making contact with the property owners, we will make sure that we speak with them.

“That’s the way it ought to be,” said Bernhardt, adding that it’s in the best interest of the utility to keep the landowners happy since they will have to negotiate to buy easements. “The last thing we want to do is tick them off.”

Bernhardt also acknowledged that the utility does not have the right to send crews onto property if the landowner refuses. The city would have to seek a court order to gain access.

During the Board of Commissioners’ meeting Thursday evening, Sides said the incident with Salisbury-Rowan Utilities caused him to do more research. He discovered that some existing county agencies or commissions appear to have authority to allow agents on private property without the landowner’s permission.

He cited as an example the Historic Landmark Commission.

And Sides also cited incidents in Davidson County where according to published reports, the Davidson County Economic Development Commission sent crews on several private properties to drill 5-inch diameter holes — again without asking the property owners.

The EDC apparently admitted to sending out the crews after residents complained to the county.

Sides asked County Attorney Jay Dees what the county can do to prohibit its agencies, commissions or partners from going on private property without permission.

Dees noted law enforcement, codes enforcement and health officials have authority to go on property without permission.

In other areas, Dees said the county can enact a policy that would prevent any agency receiving county funding from going on private property without permission.

Dees called Salisbury-Rowan Utilities a “perfect example,” saying the county can set a policy for dealing with landowners. “If they don’t do it, we can withdraw funding.”

“Let’s do it,” said Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, as a group of spectators applauded.

Chamberlain asked Dees to have the policy ready at the next meeting.

Later during the public comment period, several speakers praised the commissioners for their stance.