Point of Beginning

The Business Side

October 1, 2004
Land surveyor: it defines who we are!

I was recently asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual convention of the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors in 2005. The theme of the conference is "A Glorious Past and a Bright Future." What a great theme! No other profession has as glorious a past as surveying. Think of the order that the surveyor has brought to civilization by dividing land into cities, counties and countries around the world. Think of the collection of data by the surveyor that allowed the building of railroads, bridges and great engineering structures. Include in this prestigious review the water and wastewater plants that provide clean drinking water and environmentally safe wastewater discharge. The work of the surveyor has allowed humankind to enjoy safer roads, airports and clear title to land. Remember the survey work of the federal city of Washington, D.C., by Andrew Ellicott and the surveys of the Western Lands for the General Land Office. The surveyor undoubtedly has been and remains an influential professional. The surveyor is one of the first people consulted on any project. The surveyor is the first contacted in laying out new subdivisions and in providing housing for new homeowners. And think of the surveyors working on the World Trade Center site after 9/11! Our past is certainly something we surveyors need to and should be proud of, as well as the present"¦ now what about the future?

I believe the future of surveying looks bright. Many of the surveying programs are attracting new students. The students from these programs are bright, enthusiastic and ready to accept the challenges of surveying work. Programs such as the ACSM/NSPS student surveying competition at each year's annual conference bring out the best in the students and allow them to rub shoulders with registered surveyors. I believe we older surveyors are going to leave the profession in good hands. I also believe that the technological capabilities of future surveyors have never been better and that the surveying exams are a stiff test of this ability. The quality of work performed by the vast majority of presently registered surveyors has never been better, with an accuracy of work only dreamed of by our forefathers. Today, I see most surveyors embracing new technology with the purchase of GPS units, robotic total stations, advanced software and many other great new digital tools available to speed up the work and provide a better final survey. The bang for the buck provided to the general public has never been higher.

This survey is an example of an external danger facing land surveyors today.
Yet there are factors that might affect surveyors of the future in a negative way. As a profession we are first and foremost land surveyors. The major part of our registration that involves protecting the public has to do with surveying the land and presenting the facts related to boundaries and land ownership. This may sound like an unusual statement from the person who was instrumental in starting a GIS member origination through the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping and who provided GPS certification through my former company. But the bottom line is that my true passion and the foundation of our profession is land surveying-past, present and future.

But, the reality is that there are dangers facing land surveyors today. These dangers come in two forms: internal and external. The internal danger is that we surveyors are allowing ourselves to become overregulated by governmental agencies, and in some cases, our own boards of registration. In one state where I am registered, I recently received notice of the following newly passed bill that reads in part: "A professional land surveyor shall search the land records of the land to be surveyed filed [sic] in the register of deeds office and obtain the deeds of record of all the adjoining landowners as it pertains to the common boundaries." It also states: "The professional land surveyor shall have the additional responsibility to utilize documents of public record or unrecorded documents or plats supplied to the surveyor at the time of the survey to resolve any discrepancies between the subject land and any adjoining lands." [1]

I have no problem doing the things required by the law. In fact, most surveyors already check all deeds as a matter of good professional practice. The problem I have is a state law telling me how to be a professional surveyor. I think this kind of law degrades the job of surveyor to technician. In my state of residence (Alabama) I am required to show all boundary distances to one hundredth of a foot. When I sign the plat stating all the distances are accurate to one hundredth, I already know I could not duplicate those distances the next day. Some states are working toward breaking the surveyor's registration into many different disciplines, even when the land surveyor works with GPS (geodesy), aerial maps (photogrammetry) and GIS data. The truth is, land surveying is not many professions, but one that includes many aspects.

However, my main concern about the future of the surveying profession is the external threat. This comes in many forms, from a title lawyer telling me that an ALTA survey was an "overkill" product, to real estate companies setting prices for the services provided by the surveyor. But the most shocking practice in my view is related to a story I recently heard from a first-time homeowner. While I was providing basic survey technical training to a district of the state department of transportation, the woman in charge came to me wanting to ask some questions about surveying. She was a first-time homebuyer and had received a survey with her purchase. She was having trouble reading the map and asked me to look at it to explain how to find her property corners. When I examined the plat (see drawing) I was shocked. The drawing had been photocopied several times and not only could we not read the dimensions, but the real estate company had removed all reference as to the date it was completed and who did the survey. The name of the real estate company didn't appear on the map either. The saddest part of this story is that this document was presented to this woman as a survey of her property, and she felt she had unfairly paid a fee for a survey included in the closing.

In doing a refinancing of some of my own property I asked a clerk if a survey was required. She replied that the mortgage bank did like to have a survey in the file and an old survey of my land, or that even a survey of my neighbor's property would be fine for the refinancing process. The distressing truth is that most boards of registration would claim that these situations were outside their jurisdiction. This practice is at the very least surveying without a license, and if, as in the example cited, the homeowner paid a fee, it is fraud.

Most homeowners want the opportunity to purchase a survey when buying property. Thank goodness ACSM/NSPS is working on federal legislation that will require a homeowner be offered the chance to purchase a survey when buying a house. We all need to support this initiative to protect us against the external threats to our profession. We also need to do all that is in our power to eliminate internal threats to keep the future of surveying bright.