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On the Level: Surveyors in the Market Economy

December 17, 2010
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The joint meeting of FIG Commissions 3 and 7 in Sophia, Bulgaria, in November delivered value consistent with its theme, “Information and Land Management A Decade After the Millennium.” In particular, two issues were of interest. One is a situation familiar to us here in the U.S., while the other involves a condition foreign to most American surveyors.



Twenty-one years after the political upheaval of 1989, the Bulgarian surveying profession has reinvented itself and has grown to a robust status. Thanks to the end of a government monopoly in surveying, there is now equal standing between publicly employed and private surveyors. The Association of Surveying Companies was established in 1997 and has a membership of 57 companies. There is also the Union of Surveyors and Land Managers in Bulgaria as well as the FIG member organization, the Chamber of Graduated Surveyors.

A visitor to Sophia today can see the results of several years of expansion in which the surveying profession has been a key participant to the benefit of infrastructure and commercial growth and, not incidentally, with benefits to the profession itself. But now, as in the rest of Europe−and most of the rest of world−the economic malaise is having its predictable impact on surveying companies. Bulgaria has been building a modern cadastre for several years with nearly all the surveying work contracted out to the private surveying community. Now, however, the state has suspended investment in the cadastre for the next year or two, pulling the rug out from beneath the surveying companies whose work volume has been primarily cadastre-related. Although no surveying companies are reported to have fallen into bankruptcy, there has been a significant reduction in employment. Sound familiar? (According to the budget figures of the cadastral agency, there is a 1.7 times return of revenue from services delivered by the cadastre in ratio to funds invested in the cadastre. But these revenues flow to the general state budget rather than back into the budget of the cadastre. Another familiar story.)

An aerial view of Bulgaria from the Black Sea

One speaker offered the opinion that there are too many surveying companies in Bulgaria and that only a few are “strong.” A consolidation of companies is needed, in his opinion−a reasonable enough idea except for a couple of realities. In a free market economy, companies will continue to compete for work and will resist consolidation directed by government or even negotiated through a professional association. Companies will grow and shrink to sustainable size and capacity depending on their ability and the market for services.

The other reality is the independent and entrepreneurial spirit of the surveyor practitioner. I have noticed over the years, through the several recessions I’ve survived, that when the work slows down and the big firms lay off employees, as they must, many of those employees (professionals) will establish themselves as sole proprietors. At the end of a recession, there may be just as many firms, or even more, albeit smaller firms, than there were at the beginning of the slowdown.

As we watch developments in Bulgaria, we will cheer on our brother and sister surveyors to a future prosperity and occupational satisfaction, assuring them that we have been there and know all too well what they are going through.

A situation unfamiliar to us in the U.S. is a condition referred to as the fragmentation of land. It is a condition quite common in many European countries where agriculture has been practiced on the family farm for decades or centuries. The problem is often caused by principles of inheritance whereby at the death of the parent the family farm is divided among the surviving sons. After several generations of this practice, the result is a patchwork of small parcels of land in separate ownership, too small for practical farming and too disjointed and irregular for other forms of commercial development such as housing. Imagine a large agricultural area consisting of perhaps hundreds or thousands of parcels so fragmented that no practical land management device can be applied. There are many individual owners and many parcels without practical access to infrastructure. It is a condition described by an American writer as the tragedy of the anticommons in which too many people block each other from creating or using a scarce resource.1

A solution is land consolidation and reallocation, a readjustment of the land tenure structure. The objective is “to optimally rearrange the existing land tenure structure in a certain rural area so as to fulfill the aims of a particular land consolidation project.”

The exercise, described by Demetris Demetriou in a paper presented at the Sophia meeting,2 involves combining all the parcels in consolidation then partitioning and redistributing parcels on an equitable basis, giving each owner of the original fragments of land new regularly shaped parcels of a general area and land value and with access to roads and infrastructure. Because some land area must be devoted to the creation of roads and other public uses, owners may end up with land areas reduced by 20 percent or more from their original parcels. In the readjustment of parcels, a minimum size is established for practical purposes. Any owner whose original holding was less in area than that minimum size receives no land but is compensated financially.

It is a system that may be employed voluntarily by the owners of the fragmented parcels but more often must be applied imperatively by the state. We in the U.S., with our more libertarian attitudes, might take exception to such an aggressive state action. However, according to Demetriou, it is usually accepted gladly by European owners since they end up owning parcels that are consistent in area and value to their original holding but that now have practical commercial value. It is an exercise in geometry, land value appraisal, environmental concern, infrastructure availability and other practical considerations with implications of political purpose and will. Methods employed in the exercise include arcane systems such as GIS, multi-criteria decision methods (MCDM) and something called genetic algorithms (GA).

The closest American surveyors are apt to come to a consolidation/reallocation exercise is when we survey several adjoining parcels that have been amalgamated by a client, such as for a residential subdivision. But in our experience, we have one client and one owner with one idea for the project and no concern about who will own what at the end. (That’s the realtor’s project.) It would be fun to try it though, wouldn’t it?

Comment on this column online at www.pobonline.com.



References

1.         Heller, Michael, The Gridlock Economy, 2008, Basic Books. Demetriou, Demetris, et al., The Centre for Spatial Analysis and Policy, School of Geography, University of Leeds, “Towards an Integrated Planning and Decision Support System (IPDSS) for Land Consolidation.” Paper presented at the joint meeting of FIG Commission 3 and Commission 7, 15-17 November, 2010, Sophia, Bulgaria.

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