Columns / Denny: The Business Side

The Business Side: The Art of Land Surveying

January 3, 2012
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Milton Denny, PLS, is the owner of Denny Enterprise LLC in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a company serving the surveying and mapping community through consulting and seminar services. This column is the first in a new series based on Denny's latest book, "The Art of Land Surveying," which is expected to be released in early 2012.


Why are we licensed as land surveyors? If you look at all the different states’ requirements, the message will come through loud and clear--to protect the public.

I believe the purpose of our role as surveyors is to establish real property boundaries that will be defensible in a court of law. But to be able to effectively serve a client in this manner, the licensed surveyor has to understand the art of surveying.

Whether land surveying is more science or art has been the subject of a long-running debate, and throughout history the pendulum has swung back and forth between both theories. Today, I believe science is winning. But I would like to present the case on why the art of land surveying is important, based on long-standing principles of the rights of the entryman and case law. Occupying property is based on the good faith effort of the original surveyor who used different standards and technology to locate the property description on the surface of the Earth. Much of this information may come as a surprise to many recently licensed surveyors that only studied the science of surveying. Many older surveyors had mentors that taught them the art of surveying as apprentices. This system is largely lacking today, which has resulted in the multiple corner dilemma and many unnecessary court battles.

In an ever changing world of technology, it is important to reflect on some basic principles and measure their value in the modern world. Modern surveying, which is about 300 years old, has changed greatly in the past 20 years. The historic land surveyor took pride in placing a corner in the correct position based on “current” technology. In many cases, this meant a survey chain and compass. The surveyors that followed took greater pride in finding the original location or replacing the corner in its original location based on collateral evidence, rather than setting a new corner. Most of these surveyors knew the type of evidence to look for on the ground or had access to written documents, such as survey plats and field notes of the original surveyor.


Little has been written about colonial surveyors, but the evidence of their work is everywhere. The original explorers sent information back to their homelands of the great natural resources of the new world. This information prompted a great migration of settlers and the process of colonization began. The role of the surveyor in the early growth of this nation began with the need to survey the boundaries of vast land grants. This was a very different type of surveying than what was being done in England during that time. Most of these surveys relied on the magnetic survey compass, and they typically did not take into account the declination between true and magnetic north. This makes relating the bearing base to true north by GPS data difficult.

Distance measurement standards were also very different, requiring the retracement surveyor to rely on evidence from the written documents, such as deed calls or evidence the professional surveyor would find in the field that was appropriate for that location and time period. As the colonial surveyors spread out across the wilderness surveying the land, they also became the first GLO surveyors, bringing with them colonial methods, equipment and accuracy standards. The metes and bounds survey contains many challenges, such as recognizing evidence and putting together adjoining deeds into a land ownership pattern defensible in court. The retracement surveyor needs to understand that all the deeds in an area conducted in different time periods will not agree in bearing and distance. Being a good professional metes and bounds surveyor is an art in itself.

One of the first choices a land surveyor has to make is whether to be a deed line surveyor or a property line surveyor. A deed line surveyor is one that just stakes the deed on the ground and then ties the improvements to those lines. This lets someone else--or in some cases, the courts--decide the true boundary lines of the property. GPS allows the role of the deed line surveyor to be fairly simple and cost effective.



The property line surveyor finds all the evidence available--including monuments, old surveys and occupation--comparing record distances against the deed calls and presents the case for the defendable lines of the property knowing the evidence will not fit the deed calls exactly. This type of surveyor who builds on evidence can defend the case in court and wins most of the time.

Sizing the section with modern GPS also falls under the scope of the deed line surveyor. In sizing the section, surveyors take existing sections’ corners that may or may not be in the correct position and perform a mathematical breakdown of the section, setting new corners that do not always agree with existing local evidence. I do think it is important to size a section and compare a mathematical breakdown of the section against local existing corners. It is important to recognize that the breakdown of the section will never fit the local corners exactly. In fact, the local corners may be the best evidence of determining the location of the original GLO corners. Professional judgment is used to determine the amount of difference that is acceptable between the mathematical corner and the local existing corner. This can vary between a few tenths of a foot to a number of feet. When performing this task, ask yourself, Would I rather defend in court a new corner based on sizing the section or local collateral evidence?

What does the new BLM manual say about evidence? Some of this information is from Chapter VI, Resurveys and Evidence from the “Manual of Surveying Instructions for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States 2009,” Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, United States Government.

The rules for identifying the lines and corners of an approved official survey differ from those under which the survey was originally made. The purpose is not to “correct” the original survey by determining where a new or exact running of the line would locate a particular corner, but rather to determine where the corner was established in the beginning. There is no realm of the law in which there is a greater need to maintain stability and continuity than with regard to property rights and the location of real property boundaries. This requirement is explicitly expressed in the Act of February 11, 1805 (2 Stat. 313; 43 U.S.C. 752).

Why is it now important to dig into the art of land surveying? Most surveyors know what a problem double monumentation is becoming. I think the following two examples provide even more justification.

Most of you know I have been retracting the line set by the colonial surveyor Andrew Ellicott. The line was to be 31 degrees of latitude, but most surveyors would not be surprised to learn that the line is not exactly on 31 degrees. On the far west end at the Mississippi River it is 250 feet south, and at 106 miles east of the Mississippi River at the Pearl River, it is 550 feet north of 31 degrees. New surveys in three different locations have set the line at 31 degrees with GPS. At the Pearl River, a Mississippi surveyor has the line 550 feet south of all the evidence, 550 feet into the state of Louisiana.

The second example was told to me by an Indiana surveyor. A property had been surveyed many years ago by a survey company. On a recent resurvey by the same company using GPS, they moved most of their original corners about 3 feet. This is happening all over the country. I am hearing that many property owners are telling friends to not get their property surveyed. The new survey will only cause problems with neighbors, and you may end up in court. A truly sad state of affairs! Watch for my next column for more on the “The Art of Land Surveying.”

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