What Lies Beneath

July 5, 2011
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In the first part of this article (April 2011 POB), I spoke of the importance of preserving land corners, which include monuments, references and memorials. I asked readers to share what techniques they use and whether their applicable states have a law enforcing land corner recordation. I referenced Michigan’s Land Corner Recordation Act but wanted to compare it with other states. I also wanted to hit on the topic of replacing original monuments with new, modern monuments and when doing so is justified.

One response came from Mike Jackson, PS, Lane County, Ore., who pointed out Oregon’s stance. The writers of Chapter 209.250(9) of the Oregon Legislature clearly understood the importance of preserving land corner monuments. The statute says, “If, in the performance of a survey, a registered professional land surveyor finds or makes changes in a public land survey corner or its accessories as described in an existing corner record or survey map in the office of the county surveyor, the surveyor shall complete and submit to the county surveyor a record of the changes found or made to a corner or accessories to the corner. The record must be submitted within 45 days of the corner visits, and must include the surveyor’s seal and original signature, business name and address, and be on stable base reproducible material in the form required by the county surveyor.”

A corner monument excavation.

Jackson also shared that in addition to 209.250(9), there is another statute that directly deals with the interference of a corner. Chapter 209.140 states that “any person or public agency that finds it necessary to interfere with or pave over any established public land survey corner or accessories for any reason, shall notify the county surveyor prior to the interference, who shall lower and witness the monument, or place another monument and witness over the existing monument or reference and replace or set a witness monument, as the case may demand, and record the proceedings in the record of permanent surveys.” To trump these laws, Oregon even has a Public Land Corner Preservation Fund to help preserve and protect government land corners.

Dozens of other emails filtered in from other states like California, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri and, of course, Michigan. The Montana Certified Land Corner Recordation Certificate, the Washington Land Corner Record and the Idaho Corner Perpetuation and Filing Record all share a common theme with Michigan’s Land Corner Recordation Certificate--solid land corner preservation.

Most influential of all was an email from Jack Owens, PS, of Michigan (see the related sidebar, Points to Ponder, on page 36). During my initial research into the different laws across different states, I kept coming across a lot of the same definitions. I noticed that the Montana Corner Record Act of 1963 was a mirror image of Michigan’s Land Corner Recordation Act of 1970. Owens made me aware of Ira M. “Tiny” Tillotson, the original author of the Montana Act and the author of Legal Principles of Property Boundary Location on the Ground in the Public Land Survey States. Through my research, I began to understand the tremendous impact Tillotson has had on the surveying community across the county and the true survey genius that he was. Tillotson said, “The retracement surveyor is concerned with what the original surveyor was supposed to do, what he said he did, and what he actually did, in reverse order of importance.”

Clearly, preserving land corner monuments is a priority. But what happens when a section corner has been disturbed or destroyed, and we, as surveyors, are responsible for replacing the monument? Technology has given us some fantastic tools in the last several decades. Can we rely on GPS alone to reset the corner? And will these coordinates leave a sufficient record for future surveyors?

I believe that although a corner monument can be reset and further proven with GPS technology, the work should not be done solely with GPS technology. Having solid reference ties and noting the associated geometry of those references in relation to the monument is imperative to ensuring an accurate re-monumentation and a complete survey record.

In Fulton County, Ohio, for example, it has always been the county’s policy to place five references for each monument. Recently I received a report that a section corner was accidently destroyed by county forces while performing road repairs. This monument was last referenced by the county survey department in 1993. Since then, two references had been obliterated, and a third was damaged. Fortunately, two reliable references still existed.

The “perfect reference” uses six references on each memorialized land corner monument. Four of the six references are in different quadrants to the monument, the fifth is anywhere, and the sixth is a GPS observation.

I set up my robotic total station, took measurements of the two good references, and mathematically created a geometrically strong distance-distance intersection. I then set a temporary point and used my GPS to check the position as yet another reference. The difference between the two positions was 0.04 foot and was well within the accuracy of my GPS unit. I felt comfortable knowing the re-established monument was in the same position as the one that was destroyed.

Could I have simply done a stakeout procedure with my GPS and set a new point? Yes. But I felt much more confident and accurate with the procedure I used.

Chad Erickson, PLS, of Idaho, agrees that GPS coordinates should not be the sole reference solution. “GPS, the nearest thing to a global method for obtaining coordinates, is not precise enough,” he says. “GPS coordinates are usually differential, which means that they are organically a local coordinate system. Will the next surveyor use the same system? Probably not. A recent article that I read, somewhere, stated that most of the Pacific Coast states are moving at the rate of 0.10 feet per year. What good are 10-year old coordinates that place the corner 1.00 foot away from the original undisturbed monument? Try 100 years.”

Although there is no set rule as to when to replace or re-monument an original corner, it is important that the survey record be complete. For this reason, when I perpetuate corners, I am extremely detailed in my notes. These are supplemented with pictures, a substantial permanent subsurface monument and an additional monument at the surface. To ensure effective land corner preservation, I use a system I developed called “the perfect reference,” which puts six references on each memorialized land corner monument. Four of the six references are in different quadrants to the monument, the fifth is anywhere, and the sixth is a GPS observation. The purpose is to set references with the best possible geometry so that the corner monument can be reset if it is disturbed or destroyed. As time passes and some references inevitably disappear, there will still be a high probability that enough references, memorials and coordinates (evidence) will exist to reset the land corner monument if it is inadvertently disturbed or destroyed.

Someday, a young surveyor will be digging one of the corner monuments I memorialized and referenced. He or she might have to dig through bricks, pieces of tile, golf balls, Doritos bags, and various pieces of ferrous metal to find my subsurface monument at a depth of 4 feet. Whatever the case, it is my hope that the records I have left behind will inspire this young surveyor to be equally passionate about passing on the tradition of solid land corner preservation for future generations.

Points to Ponder: by Jack Owens, PS

In 1855, J.M. Moore, chief clerk of the GLO office, wrote in his GLO Instructions to Surveyors General, “The field work [notes, and maps] are destined always to remain identified with the respective name and reputation of the surveyor.” Every surveyor will develop a reputation, good or bad. It takes continued commitment to do a professional job. When future surveyors retrace your work, will they say, “He/she did good work,’ or “Why did I get stuck with this sorry survey?”

· Professor J. B. Davis of the University of Michigan (1872-1910) handwrote in the front of a copy of his textbook, “Write what you see.” This is so true. I can’t count the number of times a crew has given me a detailed verbal description that paints a clear word picture of the evidence discovered in recovery of a corner monument, yet their field notes contain little, if any, of this description (e.g., “found stake”). The same is seen in tepid land corner recordation forms. Remember that recovery of evidence often entails destruction of the fragile evidence found. Make sure to write it down--write a story.

· In the 1920s, R.W. Bandy, a BLM cadastral surveyor in Montana (whom Tiny Tillotson greatly admired) wrote, “See what you’re looking at.” In other words, keep in mind what you’re looking for so that you can recognize it when you see it, even if it’s not what you expect it to look like or where you expected it to be. For example, is that small (unsubstantial) white rock next to the fence post noteworthy? Is that rotted log the bearing tree lying face down obscuring the scar grown over the blaze? Keep an open mind, be inquisitive, and try to pick favorable times to look for the evidence so you don’t feel rushed.

Jack Owens has held survey licenses in seven states and has 45 years of experience in land surveying. His career has included a 300-mile survey in Nebraska involving the recovery of 1,000 section corners and the re-establishment of more than 500 missing corners as well as a 460-mile survey across South and North Dakota involving the recovery of more than 1,200 section corners. He has also led large electric transmission line surveys and international surveys.

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