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On the Level: A national cadastre for the U.S.?

December 1, 2008
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My European friends in the surveying/engineering field often ask me about the American cadastral system and are always surprised to learn that we don’t actually have such a system in our country. How can that be?



The United States is perhaps the most advanced country in terms of the technology, and we are also one of the richest with a typically vibrant real estate market and a taxation system based on real estate. So how can we not have a cadastre?

I try to explain that our land management and information systems are administered at the community or county level of government. Zoning and land planning are accomplished at the local level. Perhaps most importantly, land valuation and taxation are also dealt with locally, state by state, and community by community. Whatever parcel mapping is accomplished in the United States is usually accomplished locally. For example, in my home state of Massachusetts, parcel mapping (or tax mapping), if any, is carried out by local municipalities. Each municipality has its own specifications and standards and its own schedules and maintenance systems.

Furthermore, our land title recording systems are on a grantor/grantee-based system rather than a parcel system. Our title recording systems have functioned for a couple of centuries without the benefit of a cadastre. In other words, according to the title registers, title insurers, abstractors and attorneys-all of whom are fiercely resistant to change-“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

An Inevitable Move?

In the July issue of POB, John Palatiello, executive director of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS) and a good friend to the land surveying profession, wrote about the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (FLAIR) Act.[1]

Introduced in Congress in March 2008, FLAIR would create a multipurpose cadastre of federally owned property “providing a current and accurate parcel-based inventory of approximately one-third of the land area of the United States.” Palatiello’s article quotes Dr. David Cowen, professor emeritus of the University of South Carolina, who presents all the highly persuasive arguments for a national parcel database and says it is “the Holy Grail and a core of economic and political aspects of society. It is necessary, feasible, affordable and timely.” It is also inevitable, according to Cowen.

There is to be no argument here with Cowen’s well-founded position. But I am going to provide a note of caution for anyone advocating the creation of a national cadastre. A review of two national projects-one in Canada and one in Greece-demonstrates some of the difficulty.

In 1985, the Canadian province of Quebec began a program to reform its cadastre, which dated from the 19th century. According to the report compiled by FIG Commission 7, “Six years after work first began, nearly 85% of the initial budget had been spent but the cadastre had been renewed for only 5% of Quebec’s 3.5 million properties.”[2]

The Greeks experienced similar difficulties. Greece’s Hellenic Cadastre project, begun in 1994, was to:

Ensure the security of tenure of private rights and the operation of an efficient land market;

Determine state lands and all public rights;

Establish a large scale cadastral infrastructure for Greece; and Establish a 1:5000 digital orthophoto map base for the nation.[3]

By 2000, expenditure for the Hellenic Cadastre was 47 percent over budget, yet no properties had been correctly and finally entered into the cadastre, according to the Commission 7 report. As of 2006, only 7 percent of the country was covered by cadastral maps.[4]

The FIG Commission 7 study reviewed the problems leading to the Quebec and Greek experiences and recommended remedies. According to the study, the projects were not clearly defined as to the objectives of the various governmental departments involved. The amount of work required and the resulting costs were underestimated. There was a lack of planning and monitoring of progress. Institutional problems and a lack of quality control also contributed to the problems in both cases. However, the value of a national cadastre is undisputed; the case has been made by a variety of experts over the past 50 years. We have studied the European cadastral systems and have seen the wonders of the “multipurpose” cadastre being used not only for taxation purposes but also for planning, as a basis for titling and in support of real estate markets.

A Valuable System

The current concern about informal development (and the accompanying illegal construction) not only in African, South American and Asian countries but also in European countries brings the cadastre into sharp focus. Two articles in the June 2008 Surveying and Land Information Science (SALIS) journal demonstrate an application of a modern operational cadastral system.

In “Simple Method for Cost-Effective Informal Building Monitoring,” the authors show how change detection techniques can be applied to automatically detect and monitor illegal construction by modern photogrammetric methods coupled with a comprehensive cadastre.[5] In “Tools for Legal Integration and Regeneration of Informal Development in Greece: A Research Study in the Municipality of Keratea,” the authors discuss the tools used for legal integration and environmental upgrade of unplanned settlements.[4] Many countries in Europe and elsewhere are struggling with the ongoing development of informal or unplanned developments and what to do about them. The issue is apt to boil down to the question of whether to demolish or legalize such settlements. Quality of construction, access to infrastructure and environmental impact are considered before an equitable judgment can be made. A completed and comprehensive national cadastre as the foundation of a spatial data infrastructure is required in order to answer the question.

Informal development and illegal construction may not be a pressing problem in the United States. (As far as I know, there are no studies or reports documenting extensive informal development here.) But the use of a national cadastre in wrestling with the problem of informal development is an example of the general value of the system in addition to its value for inventorying purposes, taxation, planning, environmental monitoring, disaster response and construction control.

But is the development of a national cadastre in the United States inevitable as Cowen suggests? When we see groups like register of deeds associations, the real estate bar, the land title insurance industry, county tax assessors, economists and environmentalists joining with cartographers and surveyors to demand action for a cadastre, we may see the beginning of a movement to actually develop a national cadastre.



References

1- John M. Palatiello, “Capitol Gains: A National Parcel Cadastre,” POB July 2008.

2- “Benchmarking Cadastral Systems,” FIG Commission 7, April 2002, p. 30. Available at www.fig.net/pub/compub/ FIG2002-BenchmarkingCadastralSystems.pdf.

3- Id., p. 30.

4- Chryssy A. Potsiou and Katerina Dimitriadi, “Tools for Legal Integration and Regeneration of Informal Development in Greece: A Research Study in the Municipality of Keratea,” SALIS June 2008.

5- Christodoulos Psaltis and Charalabos Ioannidis, “Simple Method for Cost-Effective Informal Building Monitoring,” SALIS June 2008.

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