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Solo Notes: The Surveyor as Peacemaker

February 29, 2012
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Stahl making a presentation speech for the UCLS plat competition.


All too often, land surveyors are associated with causing problems between neighbors. But what happens when a surveyor devotes himself to understanding and applying the law so that he can resolve boundary disputes through mediation? John B. Stahl, owner of Cornerstone Professional Land Surveys, shares his story in this exclusive POB interview.

POB: Why did you decide to enter the surveying profession?


Stahl: In school, my aptitude always favored mathematics, so I actually found it rather boring and unchallenging. I decided to focus on more fascinating aspects of the world around me through a more intense study of the biological sciences. I received special dispensation, against the counselor’s advice, to drop my upper high school trigonometry in exchange for more science and physics classes.

My college career majored in downhill skiing with a minor in botany directed toward a more advanced career in metric conversions. During summer breaks, I worked with the Helena, Mont., City Engineering Department. My first days at work were spent leaning over the back seat watching a foreign ritual of construction plan take-offs being done on a Hewlett Packard 35 calculator. I found a great level of satisfaction as we laid out the construction stakes, ran the level and traverse loops, and staked out the curves with our 300-foot ribbon steel tape. It was a game to see how closely we could close our traverses taking into account the temperature, tension sag, and vertical corrections in the mountainous terrain we were surveying.

The best lesson I learned during my stint with the city was the infinite amount of knowledge that could be gained about any topic that drew my interest. I had the pleasure of working with two very talented surveyors with a penchant for learning. It seemed that we were constantly challenging each other with new ideas and concepts, always looking for a better way.

POB: How did you end up in Utah?

Stahl: I quit the city job to pursue my surveying education. I had to relocate to Kalispell, Mont., to attend one of only two schools in the state offering a surveying degree. The move was just a short town-to-town haul in Montana terms. That's like crossing about four or five states back east. Flathead Valley Community College is where I learned how to learn. My experience of land surveying made it a lot easier to assimilate the information and just added fuel to my hunger for learning. I came away with an associate's degree in land surveying; more importantly, I knew how to find answers to the questions I would encounter.

Soon after graduating I had one of those "mountaintop encounters” with the Almighty. You want change in your life? Just look up, acknowledge Him, and throw a challenge in His direction. Talk about a radical transformation! Next thing I knew, He transformed me all the way to Utah to help start a church! I discovered that God is much bigger than any of the manmade boxes we attribute Him to.

Stahl on a survey project in South-central Utah.

POB: How did the move from Montana to Utah affect your views of the surveying profession?

Stahl: It was quite a culture shock moving from my birthplace in Montana to Utah. My first job working for a surveying company in Utah made me step back and question what I had been taught about the laws, rules and duties the professional land surveyor was supposed to follow. Some of the solutions I saw being derived made me seriously question whether I had any idea of surveying. I tried questioning my mentors about their procedures and laws but was met mostly with blank stares. I joined the Utah Council of Land Surveyors in hopes of finding some answers. There were about 35 members at the time, five of which were recent out-of-state arrivals, each seeking the same answers. 

I came to find out that there really weren't many answers, nor were there many laws or regulations for surveying in Utah--at least, none that anyone knew of. I hauntingly realized that I couldn't survey in violation of the principles that I had been trained to follow. That was the catalyst that gave purpose to my quest for knowledge. I began making regular visits to the law library researching the state statutes, reading court cases, and studying journal articles. I discovered that the rules were the same, not only for Utah but for the other states as well. Sure, there were some minor variations, but the laws all shared the same foundations. That’s when I fell in love with the law. I developed a deep fascination and respect for the land tenure system we too often take for granted.

I was appalled at some of the blatant violations of private property rights that many of my colleagues were committing. I witnessed what seemed on the surface to be sound surveying decisions being determined for the wrong reasons or applied to the wrong circumstances. I made a conscious decision that I would either make a difference in my profession or I would have to go sell shoes. I could not turn a blind eye to the property owners' rights that were being violated. So, I got involved. I became an officer in the UCLS beside a few equally radical surveyors from Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada and Texas who were similarly frustrated. We started holding workshops, establishing classes at the Salt Lake Community College, passing legislation, and generally just stirring the pot. I made a lot of great friends through those early years and made a number of people outright angry as well. Some surveyors don't take to change very well.

By 1989, we had established a full associate degree program at the college. Adjunct instructors from a variety of private and government sectors taught land surveying applications for mathematics, field techniques, records research, photogrammetry, ethics and land boundary law. I continue to teach the land boundary law class and will soon begin teaching an advanced boundary law class for the new bachelor degree program at Utah Valley University, which is currently in its startup year. I have learned much more than I have ever taught during my tenure. Constant study of the law of boundaries caused me to understand many of our methods in a much different way. It heightened my awareness of the importance our profession holds in society.

Stahl and three of his former employees standing in front of the Uinta Special Meridian Initial Point monument erected by UCLS. From left to right are Corbin Van Nest, Frank Verucchi, Matt Clark, and John Stahl.

POB: Why did you decide to launch your own business?

Stahl: After a few years of working in Utah for a couple of firms, I finally decided to take the plunge and get my license. In 1988, I started my own company, Cornerstone Professional Land Surveys Inc. I specialized in land boundaries but also did some construction surveying to help fill the voids. The firm grew to a payroll of 10 employees at its highest count. As the company grew, I spent more of my time mentoring, teaching and helping people resolve boundary disputes through mediation and litigation. I was privileged to have a number of dedicated employees whom I consider friends, colleagues and fellow surveyors. We fostered an environment where we could openly discuss survey issues and intricacies, but, of course, it always had to be done my way in the end. I knew they were ready to make it when they could actually persuade me (on rare occasions) to accept another alternative. Thanks, Michael, Matt, Bruce, Corbin, and the many others who stood behind me and believed that a company could make a difference.

Just as seasons change, my focus on individual boundary problems and the litigation arena changed the direction of the company. The doors of opportunity opened for each of us. We all went our separate ways, and I was left with a vision for running a solo operation. In order to better assist my clients, I needed to be intimately involved in every aspect of each project. I needed to do the research, the field work, the analysis, and the interviews. There are times that I miss the camaraderie that we all shared as a team, but there is a sense of reward in knowing that each one of my former employees has his own surveying license and is seeking his own career, fulfilling his own dreams. They continue to make me proud.

POB: Today, you specialize in mediation. Why did you decide to focus on this niche?

Stahl: After several years of witnessing landowners spending tens of thousands of dollars, nearly bankrupting themselves through the process of litigation, and having witnessed the successes that mediation offered as an alternative, I realized how easily surveyors could fit that role. It was then that I read Chief Justice Cooley’s treatise, The Judicial Function of Surveyors (Cooley, 1881). I’d read it in school – it was required reading in my own classes that I had taught for years, and I’d read it hundreds of times before. But for the first time a key thought leaped out at me: “It is always possible, when corners are extinct, that the surveyor may usefully act as a mediator between parties and assist in preventing legal controversies by settling doubtful lines.”

Cooley’s words began to really sink in. There is no other profession in the country given the responsibility to maintain the boundaries of private and public property that are so vital to our nation’s citizenry and its economic progress. The more I study and learn about our judicial process, the more I begin to understand why Cooley would encourage us by stating, “… that courts and juries may be required to follow after the surveyor over the same ground, and that it is exceedingly desirable that he govern his action by the same lights and the same rules that will govern theirs.” We have, instead, become a profession obsessed with applying mathematical principles against Cooley’s warning, “Unfortunately, it is known that surveyors sometimes, in supposed obedience to the State statute, disregard all evidences of occupation and claim of title and plunge whole neighborhoods into quarrels and litigation by assuming to "establish" corners at points with which the previous occupation cannot harmonize.” The more I became involved with boundary dispute litigation, the more evidence of truth I found in his words.

A legal foundation forms the basis for the survey principles we have been taught to apply. Understanding the legal foundation is necessary to understand our heritage as land boundary surveyors. Through an intimate study of the law, I have gained more confidence when expressing my professional opinion. Investigating the foundation of the surveying principles has confirmed much of what I learned early in my career, but it has also overturned some concepts that are generally misunderstood by our profession. Through my practice as a frequent expert witness and consultant on land boundary determinations, I have had many encounters that have opened my eyes to the expectations the judge has when you are called to the witness stand. The judge doesn’t want you to defend your survey; he wants you to explain how boundaries are determined in accordance with the law. He wants you to tell him why you placed the boundary in your chosen location. What evidence did you examine, why did you examine it, and what rule of law did you apply to reach your determination? He needs to know what rules govern his actions when he reaches his decision. That’s the role of the expert witness.

It didn’t take many courtroom experiences to realize the success that mediation brought to the table of dispute. I began to research mediation, seeking an understanding of the process that seemed to lead me completely out of the box I typically associated with my duties as a surveyor. I attended a 40-hour training program, which was one of the more grueling experiences in my career. I learned how to put aside my natural tendencies as a surveyor, which allows me to attack a problem, to sort out the complexities and to make a decisive resolution to the problem at hand. As a mediator, my professional opinion didn’t matter. What mattered was that the landowners are allowed to derive their own solutions, in their own way, and for their own satisfaction. It is, after all, their property.

I’ve learned that most laymen don’t know how to resolve the issue. They need information that only the surveyor can provide in order to find an intelligent solution to their problem. I’ve learned that instead of simply documenting the conflicting evidence on my final survey product, I can present the information to the adjoining landowners and assist them in developing a resolution for the conflict. I’ve also learned that, when given the opportunity, the vast majority of neighbors will work together to find an amicable solution. When resolved together, they remain good neighbors and perhaps become friends, having jointly resolved an issue over their common boundary.

I’ve also learned that too few surveyors have discovered this process and have never been taught their potential role as mediator. We have, instead, been taught that “it’s not our job” to resolve the problems--just document the problems and tell them to call their attorney. Many of us surveyors, looking back on our many conversations with landowners, have been confronted with opportunities to assist owners needing resolution of a boundary problem. Standing across the barbed-wire fence, or sitting around the farmer’s kitchen table, is where mediation most commonly takes place without even recognizing it. 

My decision to focus my practice on the legal aspects of land boundaries and property rights has opened my eyes to the reason we have laws regarding boundaries. The laws that govern the very practice of our profession are designed to bring resolution to disputes. The proper application of these rules of law will provide the resolution that landowners seek. Surveyors apply these laws on a daily basis. Unfortunately, we have fettered our own practice by seeming to pick and choose which laws we are comfortable with and which we are not. The courts have not placed those hobbles upon us; we have hobbled ourselves. We give feet, eyes, ears and hands to these laws every time we determine a boundary location. The greater our understanding of the laws becomes, the more justice is found in our determinations.

POB: What have been the biggest changes in the surveying profession since you started your business, and do you think these changes have been mostly good or bad?

Stahl: The most obvious changes are certainly technological. We’ve seen numerous enhancements in our measurement technologies, allowing us to obtain more data over a more condensed period of time. Unfortunately, many of us haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity by gathering more data to enhance our analysis. Instead, we tend to gather the same data in less time, then struggle to find enough billable hours to keep our crews busy. In our haste, we miss the opportunity to perform better reconnaissance or to document our findings in a more permanent or complete fashion. Some work is still better left to the cloth tape, compass, shovel and a sketch pad.

The greatest technological advancement that has affected my work is the Internet. The information technologies, including GIS, have enhanced my ability to research and recover extensive amounts of information. Immediate access to title documents, high resolution aerial imagery products, and historic survey records have allowed me to expand my research to include a much larger “picture” of the area I’m surveying. I can more easily develop a chronology of the history of the property and its generations of settlement, and can achieve a better understanding of how and why the boundaries are located as they are. I can review the ancient laws, rules and regulations that governed the settlers providing a contextual reasoning for the physical evidence resulting from their actions. I don’t see GIS technology as a threat to my work as a land boundary surveyor. I see it as a great resource which allows me to provide a better service. I don’t expect accuracy in boundaries depicted on maps, but I do expect accuracy (not precision) when I locate a boundary on the ground.

POB: What has been your biggest success; what are you most proud of?

Stahl: It's been a long 29 years since I moved to Utah. Our state conference is now attended by over 450 surveyors. At one of the lunches, the speaker asked all of the students who had taken classes at SLCC to stand. It was well over a third of the audience. I'm not sure how many of them have graduated from the Associates Degree program over the past 20 years, but there are a lot. Additionally, more than 20 adjunct instructors stood for acknowledgement of their accomplishments, service and sacrifice. 

Many of those students now have seated themselves as officers, committee chairman and active members of our society and are giving back to their profession. Every time I see one of my co-workers or students, it makes me proud of the accomplishments we have made. The state society has been able to enact survey filing legislation, standards of practice, and continuing education requirements. We now have a full-time lobbyist and work together with the League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties. We have active committees for education, standards and ethics, newsletters, conventions, legislation, and testing. We have surveyors who genuinely care about their profession and who are proud to carry the title of professional land surveyor.  

I have acquired a passion for teaching land boundary law and for sharing my discoveries as an expert witness and mediator. I love sharing my knowledge, skills, and experiences with my colleagues, attorneys, real estate agents, and title officers who are involved with our profession. My passion for teaching has opened the door to opportunities for invitational speaking engagements locally and across the country at various seminars, conferences and conventions. The pressure to write a book on the subject has been increasing to a point where it is becoming difficult to postpone. I hope to release the first edition early next year.

I can only claim a small part in the success of our state society and a small part in providing an education to the students of the land surveying program. But it makes me proud to know that the part that I play has helped to raise the level of our profession to one that we all can be proud of together.

POB: How do you feel about the future of the surveying profession?

Stahl: We have come a long way, yet there is still much to be accomplished. When I look to the accomplishments of the forefathers of our profession, I see men of stature, men of prestige, and men who were committed to protecting the rights of the citizenry to hold property. I see a nation that was founded on the individual's inalienable right to enjoy his property without fear from intervention. I also see a nation where few are left who will stand up for those rights. Laws in a country such as ours are formed to protect those rights, yet someone must be willing to carry the banner to ensure that those laws are honored and are upheld. For in the upholding is where the protection begins. Police officers uphold and protect the civil rights; courts ensure that those rights are not violated. Attorneys inform the citizens of their rights and can assist them understanding and fighting for those rights.  

Land surveyors are in a profession that is unique in this country. It is their duty to uphold and protect the rights to real property. It is their responsibility to determine the extent of the landowner's rights as limited by the rights of the neighbor or in determining the extent of the public's rights as limited by the private landowner's rights. There is no profession other than the surveyor who has the expertise, knowledge, and skills necessary to determine the location of a boundary. The police can't do it; the attorney can't do it; even the judge can't do it. Only the land surveyor can locate the boundary on the ground. The police can keep the peace, the attorney can inform them of their rights and assist them in matters of title and litigation, and the judge can resolve disputes when they arise. Only the surveyor can apply the laws to the evidence and fix the position of the boundary on the ground.

When the land surveyor is found lacking in knowledge with regard to boundary laws and the rights of the landowners, a serious void is formed. Who, apart from knowledge of the laws, can properly determine the location of the boundary line? We seem to have evolved with the advent of our technology into thinking that the numbers in the deeds, the measurements that our instruments will perform, or the location the data collector reveals will control the ultimate location of the boundary. The laws are contrary to that perception. While technology has produced excellent tools for the surveyor, the technology will never replace him. Boundary locations are not a technical application; they are a physical one. Boundaries are not established by numbers on a GIS computer screen; they are established by the actions of the landowners and documented by surveyors. The land surveyor must be sensitive to their overall duty to recover, document and perpetuate boundary evidence. Not just the measurements, but the record, physical and testimonial evidence which together prove the agreements that establish the boundary location.

Landowners deserve to live in peace and in harmony. They deserve to have certainty and stability in their land boundaries. Land surveyors should be considering, enacting and achieving all within their power to ensure that harmony. Much has been done toward that end, but there is much yet to be done. Surveyors must not lose sight of the goals. We must unite to achieve them. The state and national surveyor's organizations and the many websites dedicated to discussions enable surveyors to come together on a global scale like no other time before in history. They allow us to share ideas and to enact solutions designed to resolve conflicts rather than leaving a wake of dispute and uncertainty. The visitation of the land surveyor should be viewed as the best possible means for protecting one’s property rights.


John B. Stahl, PLS, CFedS, owns Cornerstone Professional Land Surveys in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has more than 27 years of experience in the land surveying profession and 15 years as a business owner. He specializes in boundary retracement and boundary dispute resolutions and litigations. He’s also an adjunct professor at Salt Lake Community College and provides expert witness services to attorneys, companies and land owners. For more information, visit www.cplsinc.com.

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