Point of Beginning

Contributing Editor's Note

March 28, 2001
Jerry R. Broadus
During my first year in law school, I took a property law class. I earned my first land surveyor’s license three years before and decided to plunge into law school in search of an advanced degree in something related to the field. What I found most interesting was property boundary retracement and two particular comments from that class. One, from the professor who had enjoyed a long career in property law, was that he had always believed that as surveying became more “accurate” the need to litigate boundaries would fade into history. He said he thought that by the time he began teaching he would not have to cover boundary disputes in the same depth reached in his own training because boundary litigation would become obsolete. However, he had to cover the topic because boundary suits “just don’t go away.” I also remember a comment from a classmate who said, “Surveyors never agree with each other anyway.”

I later became a clerk for a court and researched boundary cases. I practiced law and assisted clients suing their neighbors over boundaries. Twelve years ago I returned to surveying boundaries, mostly for landowners involved in disputes. Boundary disputes are still among the most common of civil actions. Boundary law emphasizes stability, but the most stable element is that neighbors will take actions on their properties in ignorance of or in disregard of their boundaries. Surveyor disagreements seem to me, however, to have changed.

My law professor’s imprecise use of the term “accuracy” arose from the belief that boundary disputes spring from a surveyor’s mis-measurement of distances between monuments. I review a lot of records that illustrate differences among surveys, but seldom are they traceable to material differences between measurements. Acknowledging the risk of overgeneralization, I believe that a benefit of increased education, both before and after licensing, is an increased understanding of the precision of measurements, leading to fewer disputes over positioning points or in reporting values.

Property surveyors still disagree of course. Surveys differ just as legal opinions differ, largely due to differences of opinion concerning the application of boundary evidence. And as we have no time machines, we have no choice but to puzzle over bits of archaeology and historical records before we know where to measure from.

Surveyors often ask me whether a law degree helps a surveyor practice his profession. It helped me sharpen a predisposition I already held. I view boundary surveying as an exercise in “getting into the head” of some previous owner of the lands in question. Measurement is a tool for this. I feel a landowner has a right to expect a professional surveyor to not only find the most supportable answer but will be willing and able to defend that answer in court. A law degree helps one develop skills in these arenas, perhaps (sadly) because my law professor was incorrect in believing that boundary disputes would become obsolete.