Point of Beginning

Surveying GIS: Recording land surveys Canadian style.

March 1, 2010
In 2009, we examined how electronic plat filing works in Australia. As I was doing some follow-up work on that series, I discovered that similar systems are employed by a near neighbor of the United States: Canada. ... 



In 2009, we examined how electronic plat filing works in Australia. As I was doing some follow-up work on that series, I discovered that similar systems are employed by a near neighbor of the United States: Canada. To explore this connection, I decided to focus on British Columbia, Canada’s third largest province.

Land Titles in British Columbia

At 364,764 square miles (944,735 square kilometers), British Columbia is larger than every U.S. state but Alaska. About 2 million titles to property exist in British Columbia, but there are only three land title offices in the province. It’s easy to see why electronic plan filing and research are natural steps in this region. 

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction outside of Australia to use the Torrens system, which was first introduced in 1861. The province employs what British Columbia’s Surveyor General, Mike Thomson, calls “a modified version” of the system, which features one significant difference: The Land Title and Survey Authority of British Columbia (LTSA) is an independent corporation responsible for managing the land title and survey systems for the province.

That is correct--I said independent corporation. The LTSA is a unique construct that was established under British Columbia’s Land Title and Survey Authority Act and officially separated from the government on Jan. 20, 2005. It is not a title company--there are no title companies in British Columbia as Americans understand them. Title in this province is protected by the Land Title Act. The LTSA is a private corporation, but it has no shares. All revenue goes back into LTSA, and a portion of those fees then go to the British Columbia provincial government.

The LTSA permits all stakeholders in matters of land title--including lawyers, notaries public, land surveyors, title search agents and government officials--primary access to title documents. Real estate agents, appraisers and various other professional researchers are allowed secondary access. Research traditionally has been done in one of the three provincial land title offices, but the vast majority of records are now online. 

Michael Binge outside one of three British Columbia land title offices.

From Paper to PDFs

Though the first electronic filing did not occur until 2006, the process began much earlier. The plan to convert paper records into a digital format was first introduced in 1987. About 450,000 plans were converted from microfilm images with the first available for viewing by 1988. From there, a series of modernization programs were instituted ultimately leading to the creation of the LTSA.

The legislative changes resulting in the formation of the LTSA permitted plans to be submitted as PDF images. No electronic signatures are required on the plan itself. A set of “off the plan” signatures was adopted in lieu of electronic signatures. The electronic filing system (EFS) is accessed through secure accounts on BC OnLine, the province’s Web site for electronic government services. After each plan is submitted, it is reviewed for completeness. No geometric checks are included in that review.

Before the LTSA was created, survey and title issues were not even handled in the same agencies. The typical turnaround time between the two functions was 30 days. Land title applications now average six days and often are handled in as few as four days. The turnaround times are reported annually and made available to all interested parties.

According to “LTSA Update,” the corporation’s quarterly newsletter, “BC Lawyers, Notaries, Land Surveyors and Registry Agents who rely on this safe and secure electronic system understand the benefits of using the Internet to submit land title documents and land survey plans for registration by LTSA.”

With the exception of Quebec, all Canadian provinces have adopted or are moving toward a model similar to that currently employed by British Columbia.

An online cadastre obtained through BC OnLine’s Web search portal.

The GIS Connection

So what does all of this have to do with GIS? I’m glad you asked. The British Columbia model is a great example of what can happen when a framework that encompasses the larger picture of surveying is employed. Such a framework tends to generate more good ideas about improving the system. The core of any useful GIS is based on two essential components: a solid georeferencing framework and an accurate land base. Absent these components, we are left with what is basically a pretty picture.

There is currently no direct program that places the coordinated cadastre in enterprise GIS systems in Canada. But it is in the plan. Or as Mike Thomson puts it, “We are working aggressively toward that end.”

A comparison between the PLSS and DLS.

Sidebar: The Canadian Land System: Quick Facts

Land Titles

The rectangular land system used in Western Canada is called the Dominion Land Survey (DLS) and is similar to the Public Land Survey System in the United States. However, one difference that I found interesting is that there is no right of adverse possession in British Columbia. The Land Title Act states that all existing methods of acquiring a right in or over land by prescription are abolished and, without limiting that abolition, the common law doctrine of prescription and the doctrine of the lost modern grant are abolished.[1] Additionally, there are no property deeds in British Columbia. Instead, there are certificates of title.

Licensing Reciprocity

British Columbia land surveyors must write four examinations, serve an apprenticeship and complete a field project to become licensed. American licensed surveyors have to apply to the Canadian Board of Examiners to have their credentials reviewed prior to completing all four exams and a field project. All Canadian land surveying associations recently signed a reciprocity agreement under which a four-hour exam is required for commission in British Columbia.

Georeferencing Surveys

Integrated survey areas (ISAs) provide an infrastructure for survey control monuments within developing areas. There are currently 52 ISAs in British Columbia. Every survey inside an ISA must be tied to the NAD 83 grid through the Canadian Spatial Reference System (CSRS). There is no requirement to tie property surveys to the national grid outside the ISAs, but mandatory georeferencing for all surveys will be required in the future. The system currently contains about 30,000 passive reference points, and the Canadian real-time GPS correction system framework is well on its way to providing support to the survey georeferencing program.

Continuing Education

Continuing education is not mandatory in British Columbia, but the province does take it very seriously. The Association of BC Land Surveyors conducts a seminar called “Getting it Right BC,” which endeavors to enhance the role of the whole survey team to improve the quality of surveys. “It is about ensuring the development of better professionals,” Surveyor General Mike Thomson says. “Our responsibility is to the cadastre.” Included in the program is a comprehensive workshop on the use of the electronic filing system.

Reference

1. Land Title Act [RSBC 1996], CHAPTER 250, Part 3--Registration and Its Effect, Sec. 24.


Author’s acknowledgement: Special thanks to Doug Casement, PLS, for his assistance with the reciprocity section.