Columns / Surveying Basics / Boundary & Topo / Turner: Surveyor's Footsteps / Surveying & Mapping Education / Survey Monuments

The 'Lucky' Surveyor

I’ve never had any luck. I can’t win at poker, although I enjoy the game. 




I’ve never had any luck. I can’t win at poker, although I enjoy the game. Any dollar spent on a raffle is truly a donation. If I pick four different numbers for the lottery, at best only one will be correct. As a surveyor, this makes me fortunate; I know better than to rely on luck to find monuments.

Twenty-five years ago, while another party chief was on vacation, I had the displeasure of having his grumpy, lazy transit man work on my crew. After a week of watching me find all sorts of pins, PK nails, stones, spikes and other markers, he exclaimed, “You are so lucky!” I just looked at him and wondered what his experience with other surveyors had been.

A few years later, while performing a boundary survey for a golf course, I noticed that there was a stone called for on an old plan. My employer walked the site with me and said, “Don’t bother looking for that one; Scotty couldn’t find it.” After rough-measuring to find the vicinity to search, I pushed a shovel into the soil and struck rock. A few seconds later, I was brushing the dirt off the top of the old stone. It wasn’t luck; I've just been around for a while and learned a few things.

It’s much easier to find a corner before starting calculations than to find a marker “near” where I am about to set one on a return trip to the site. There are times when I have dug seemingly everywhere to be sure a monument does not exist, only to hit it when trying to drive a pin. Those experiences have sent me “back to the drawing board” and forced me to rethink my conclusions.

We all have hits and misses. Sometimes I will hand over the magnetic locator while telling an employee, “Go ahead and give it a try; I couldn’t find anything there.” I always hope they will show me up and take the glory for succeeding.

I once sent a crew to perform the field survey on a large tract of land that had been an estate but was split up and turned into a subdivision in the 1950s. The crew returned with pins located, curbs and their traverse information. After initial calculations, I was unhappy with the way the monumentation was not fitting the deed bearings and distances. The deed called for a marble stone at a specific corner where they had found only a new pin set with an engineer’s name on the top.

I asked them whether it looked like earthmoving or clearing and re-grading had occurred at the specific location. They said no. I explained to them that in the evolution of monumentation, initially a pin or pipe would be set, but a stone or concrete monument would then replace the pin at an extra cost. I sent the crew back to search for the stone. They looked but did not find one.

These men were good workers; they were diligent and seldom made mistakes. However, the call for a stone and their description of the area as undisturbed bothered me, so I drove to the site to see for myself. About half a foot from the new pin, I found the marble stone, covered with earth and leaves.

The crew was naturally embarrassed and learned the same lesson I had learned before them: experienced surveyors have a good reason for insisting on looking more than once. The old marble stone fit the deeds and other monumentation. Had I held the new pin, I would have taken ground from the neighbor and documented an error as fact.

I recently sent a party chief to a site to stake out a side property line. When the neighbor arrived home later in the day, he was upset by the placement of the stakes and called the architect to complain. I soon received calls from the architect, the homeowner and the contractor, who wanted to install yard inlets along the property line. I did not even ask the crew chief about it; instead, I drove to the site first thing the next morning.

During the initial survey, the party chief had located a lot of Hilti nails on the property lines, which extended to cross the old concrete curbs in that neighborhood. I worked for the company who laid out the lots years ago, and I knew they loved their Hilti gun. For the most part, all their nails were very close to the record plan, but there was not a nail for our line as it extended to the curb line.

Complicating matters, the homeowner and the neighbor each had copies of the subdivision plan and their deeds, and clearly saw the arc distance for their cul-de-sac lots. The contractor understood my explanation that the arc distance was measured at the right-of-way line and not the curb line. Kneeling in the road and sighting down the line my party chief had staked, I saw the shaft of a Hilti nail with the top broken off in the curb. I showed the nail to the contractor, who sprayed a large ring of orange paint around it. “Eyeballing” the line of stakes, it looked to be perfect. Had the party chief not looked for and located the other nails in the curb, I would not have known that the area had all been surveyed at the same time and wouldn’t have been on my knees looking. In that neighborhood, the lot lines stopped at the right-of-way line, and none of the monuments called for on the subdivision plan had been set.

About the time I was finished with the contractor, the unhappy neighbor arrived with his deed and subdivision plan in hand. Explaining how the arc was along the right-of-way line did not address his doubts. My goal, aside from being correct, is to have people understand that our work is correct so I gave the neighbor a quick lesson in the development of subdivision lots. We “swung in” from the curbs and created a crayon mark at the rough center of the cul-de-sac. From there, I pulled the radius distance across the Hilti nail on the other side of his lot and put a wood stake in the ground at the approximate right-of-way line. So far so good. He understood that the stake was on the property line and saw that, like the new pin, it was about 12 feet from the curb.

Then he brought up the chord distance that was on the plan. I hooked my cloth tape onto a nail next to the stake and pulled it across to the new pin the party chief had set so the neighbor could see he had his deed distance. I further explained that if we were to keep the width to allow him to own what he thought he owned, it would pull the other side of the lot away from where he was certain it existed. In my experience, people understand a specific distance does not stretch and tend to accept what they see with their own eyes.

At this point, I thought I had convinced the unhappy neighbor, but the look on his face still showed some doubt. I suggested we measure from the new pin roughly to the existing rear pin, which he already recognized as being his corner prior to my survey. This would prove to him that my approximate placement of the stake at the right-of-way was not a trick. Standing there at the back corner, he could easily see the distance on the tape. He was finally satisfied, and the matter was put to rest.

The outcome of this survey had nothing to do with luck. It was the result of finding and locating various forms of good monumentation through a methodical process. Once a Hilti nail was found, we looked to see if other lots were similarly marked. Pins (typical for the first surveying firm) were searched out at the right-of-way lines and rear corners. These provided a solid base to understand the neighborhood and the specific lot we were surveying. It was a satisfying payoff to kneel down and see the broken remains of the shaft of that very old Hilti nail in the curb, right on line.

Surveying is a “practice,” and we are all still learning. Monumentation can build on itself and give us clues as to who set markers and in what order. There are also details specific to certain regions; for example, in my area of the country, we know to ignore “curb pins,” copper pipes, aluminum pipes and other odd markers that homeowners likely set themselves. These may end up having value, but they are not the work of our local surveyors.

If a concrete monument is found at the right-of-way line, it’s reasonable to expect that it has a mate on the other side of the lot at the right-of-way. Furthermore, there may be a match at the corresponding rear corner. If the first concrete monument does not give off a “buzz,” we can plan to spend more time probing with a shovel for the others. An older party chief told me he liked to probe with a machete and assured me he could tell the sound of tapping the top of a monument. As we narrow down the kind of monuments to expect, it helps us implement better methods with which to search.

I have been on surveys and found newly set and capped pins (obviously for an adjoining property) just a few inches away from very old pins that were never dug up. Once I find a pin, I listen with a locator and then probe with a shovel to be sure another pin or a stone is not nearby. I don’t like to be fooled or wrong. If there is a second or third pin, I want to find it early.

When our apprentices observe our techniques, they will learn as we did and will pass it on to others.



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