Turner: Surveyor's Footsteps

Surveyors Privileged to Lead the Way for Future

December 1, 2013
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As modern surveyors, we are retracing the steps of earlier pathfinders. Here in Eastern Pennsylvania, we go back to the Penn grants from the king. For many years, the Penn family sold properties and wrote deeds but kept the copies of the deeds themselves in their own records. The colonists were not happy with being sold properties and the sellers keeping the written titles so they took the matter to the courts, which meant back to England and the king.

Knowing that the court in England would rule in favor of the Penn family, the colonists took advantage of the long trip across the ocean. While the Penns were away defending their right to keep all the written records of the titles to properties, the colonists spent the months copying every deed and plat and created their own records, and from then on the deeds were kept in a public place. I learned this by listening to the Philadelphia city surveyor and regulator at one of their educational presentations.

When we surveyors begin the survey of a property, after a contract for our services has been accepted, we often start the process of gathering information to begin field work. The county courthouse and recorder of deeds allows us to obtain a copy of our clients’ deed and deeds for the adjoining properties along with tax maps and recorded plans mentioned in the caption of the deeds.

When explaining the process to a client, I will often say that it is a fishing expedition and I see what I can catch. I will get deeds, plans, maps. These may come from such sources as the courthouse, township offices, municipal authorities, county and state offices. There have been times when I was happy to receive records from the fish and game surveyors and the turnpike authority. We surveyors are often dependant on the kindness of strangers. Last week, I was searching for a missing microfiche at a courthouse I’ve been visiting for 25 years and found out they had a room I never knew existed with some very helpful women and copies of much higher quality than what I was used to getting. In this beginning, we may be following many surveyors, some long gone. I find it funny when a deed caption reads “According to a recent survey made by Irwin in 1903.”

In the field I will have read the deeds that may contain calls for pins, pipes, monuments, stones, cuts, drill holes and many other types of marks. Our predecessors have often caused to be recorded what type of materials were set at corners and so we have clues as to the conditions at the time of the old survey. If I see a spike called for, then at the time of survey there probably was blacktop at the location. A call for a marble stone tells me the survey was old. By the surveyor mentioned, we can also make some assumptions about the quality of work we are following and the type of marks that might be found. In my neck of the woods, if I find a pin with red paint on it, I know who was there last. This also helps when considering that a company went out of business before 1970 so the concrete monument called for may not have magnetic materials inside.

At a Pennsylvania surveyor’s convention, the speaker told this joke: “When a doctor makes a mistake, he puts it in the grave. When a lawyer makes a mistake, he puts it in prison. When a surveyor makes a mistake, he monuments it.”

 

I assume all surveyors want to be right every time. A key part of the process is finding the evidence, and when it matches the deed call we are more confident of our work. This is especially important when following up very old surveys such as those measured in “perches” or “rods.” In this area, reading those units of measure tell me there will probably be a lot of variation in the measured angles and distances. Finding a unique stone at an angle point in an old tree line is a heartwarming site. Find a cut mark on the top and we know we have struck gold.

I have been taught and therefore have instructed many people how to look for corners. Each has been educated to not accept a pin at face value and to look around the pin for a second marker as we don’t want to be fooled. On occasion a party chief is told to go back out and “look again;” sometimes they find another marker, one which makes sense.

A perplexing survey I performed a few years back involved a half-acre lot in a neighborhood where I found many pins and pipes. There seemed to be dimensional problems in the area causing me to go back out and look for more monumentation in hopes of making sense of the facts. While there on a subsequent monument hunt, the owner, my client, came out, and while speaking with him I explained that certain pins were not matching the rest of the neighborhood and I thought they were incorrect. It was then he told me that he had set them himself. The type of material was one used by many surveyors in my area of the country. I said nothing and pulled up the pins he set while he was watching and reset them in the correct place. Had he not experimented, I would have had high confidence early on and not wasted hours proving his markers meant nothing.

In the past I have witnessed something that is troubling. I will be surveying a property and the adjoining property or the next one farther away, will have been recently surveyed and fresh pins will exist. I will look around and it appears they did not dig up corners for other lots and I am digging them up for the first time in many years. I have to wonder what they used to decide where the new pin should be set. This scares me. To date I have not had many overlaps with my clients’ property in such cases. When I have had issues, I phoned the other surveyor when I could find out their name to discuss the problems and find out what they used to determine the boundary corners.

I hope that every land surveyor in America who retraces a property owns a magnetic locator of some kind. Even if it is a “dip needle.” Should a surveyor save $600 on a locator, they will cause a lot more expense and upset for themselves and other surveyors over time.

 

A memorable survey in King of Prussia was for a half-acre lot and my client was unhappy with the survey her neighbors had performed. My client was putting her property up for sale and relocating and did not want to feel that she was setting up the buyer for problems. She was one block in from the corner (the problem lot) and the survey should have been simple.

As I started the field work, I saw there were fresh pins on the common line with her neighbor. Even with a chain-link fence along the property line, I was easily able to find existing pins slightly below the surface of the ground near the new pins. A person with a shovel and no locator could have easily found the pins due to their proximity to the fence without any measuring. I was actually scratching my head looking at the old pins I dug up. From there, I began to rough measure from the pins I found and my client’s lot had all its corners existing. Continuing, there were many corner pins in the neighborhood that would verify those pins I found at my client’s corners. In the course of surveying and locating the other pins and the fresh pins, I located the curbs for both roads.

In conclusion, I determined that the other surveyor, who turned out to be an engineer, had read the deed and used the curbs to set his pins. What he did not realize is the curbs for his lot, which should have been 90 degrees, were not. That being the case, I am not sure he even had a transit and may have used a tape only. One of the roads was physically not in the correct place due to a layout error when the subdivision was first built. Those curbs were not centered in the right of way as the engineer assumed. It had been a gross layout error. Had he found the existing pins, located them and done some calculating, he would probably have realized he was in way over his head.

Asking the neighbor about their “surveyor,” I found out it was a friend of a friend and got his name and phone number. Discussing the surveys over the phone, he verified my belief of what his thought process had been was correct. I explained to him why he was wrong and then demanded him to tell me he was not going to be doing any further surveying. In Pennsylvania, he was not to be setting property corners under his engineering seal. He agreed to stop his land surveying.

At that time, 25 years ago, I was a newly licensed land surveyor and not comfortable calling the board and reporting him. I understand now that I am obligated to report.

 I would think that all of us want to leave behind easily found, well-marked corners as our legacy. One day they might read “according to a recent survey by” YOU. We have the privilege of marking the way for future generations to follow. 

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