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The Business Side: Surveying at a Crossroads

April 27, 2011
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The recent attempts to eliminate the board of licensure in Texas and to deregulate the surveying profession in Florida could be--and have been--attributed to the pressing need in these states to balance the budget. (Never mind that such a move would likely cost substantially more over the long term if it were carried too far.) However, if you look behind the curtain, I believe there are some other, more troubling reasons behind these trends.

Consider that most professionals in the real estate and title industry have never endorsed the idea that a boundary survey is important to the sale of property. The survey does little to protect them, and waiting for the survey may delay the closing of the sale. (One notable exception is that some parties--mainly mortgage institutions and banks--still want an ALTA survey for very valuable properties.) In most cases, the only party that benefits from a survey is the buyer of the property. Additionally, many title companies are going offshore with their services and don’t want to deal with local surveyors. Pressure is also coming from companies providing digital property maps that are often sold as a substitute for the survey provided by a licensed surveyor. All of these parties could attempt to influence legislation.

Look further, and you’ll see that we as surveyors are contributing to the problem. I didn’t think I would ever have to write these words, but I truly believe the quality of surveyors’ work is decreasing with technology, not increasing. We are becoming measurement experts, not land surveyors. GPS has become the where-all and do-all instrument of choice. More corners are being set today than ever before in the history of surveying, and many surveyors are refusing to accept a corner that has existed for years as a testament of a peaceable boundary line between neighbors just because it doesn’t fit the GPS measurement. Yet the art of surveying has always been to accept or place corners that would be accepted by the legal system as a good interpretation of the deed and documents of the property.

I was recently talking to an NSPS board member from one of the southern states. This individual had performed a survey on a large tract of land and had found many of the corners. A while later, a younger surveyor contacted his client to say the old corner was wrong, and he set a new corner. The NSPS board member contacted the younger surveyor to ask about the new corner. According to the younger surveyor, the land was GLO survey land, and the original survey notes said that the section was 80 chains. His parcel was one-quarter of that, so he set a new corner at 1,320 feet. Of course, any experienced surveyor knows that when a record is 80 chains or 1 mile, the true distance is most likely longer than 1 mile and in some cases could be shorter. The young licensed surveyor didn’t understand some of the most basic rules of surveying.

In another example, while I was working on the Louisiana/Mississippi mound line known as the Ellicott Line, I took a younger local surveyor with me on some of our searches. I showed him how to find evidence and use GPS technology to find corners. He called me a short time later to tell me he had found mound No. 59 (part of his boundary survey) but wanted me to look at the evidence before he set a monument. I went out and looked at it, and sure enough, he had found the mound. The Ellicott Line was to be 31 degrees of latitude, but falls short on the west end (Mississippi River) by a few seconds and north of 31 degrees by 6 seconds on the east end (Pearl River), which was good surveying in 1799. The line and mounds are there, but there are also many other lines set on 31 degrees by GPS. I find this very sad.

The bottom line is that I am increasingly hearing about clients who do not want to hire a surveyor because someone they know had his or her land surveyed and the surveyor started a dispute with all the neighbors. Is this what we are as a profession--authors of disruption and chaos? If so, we may just put ourselves out of business.

Fortunately, I do believe there is time to intervene and control our future. Here are three things you can do:

• If you are not already a member of your state society and NSPS, join today. It costs money to fight the battle against board elimination, and there is power in numbers to fight attacks on our profession. Your future depends on your participation.

• Get to know your legislators, both state and federal. Know what to tell them if your state’s survey laws are attacked.

• If you know local surveyors who do not understand the art of surveying, teach them. Meet and explain why what they are doing is not good survey practice. If you don’t get results, meet with the board of licensure and file a complaint. You can make a difference!

The business of surveying requires a solid system for licensure and regulation. More importantly, the safety and well-being of the public depends on it. Let’s make sure we’re doing our part to uphold and maintain this system.

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