Point of Beginning

The Business Side

November 29, 2006


If you think that focusing on the clash between old and modern technology seems a little off the topic for this business-oriented column, stick with me for a few minutes.

Hopefully, you will come to understand how technology plays a major role in business, and particularly, how paying attention to the clash between old and new surveying technology can aid your business.

Looking to the Past

If you examine our early roots as surveyors in this country, you will find that original surveying was done with a steel chain (not a tape) with an accuracy standard in most cases of one chain (66 feet) per mile. The surveying performed in Colonial America was about this accuracy (or worse when it was not measured against a standard). Today, when we resurvey the land with EDMs and GPS, we scratch our heads and wonder why the distances do not measure the same.

As surveyors, I believe that we are just beginning to become familiar with the difference between precision and accuracy. All angles and measurements contain a standard deviation. Both National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) Survey Standards and ALTA/ACSM Standards recognize that all corner positions have a built-in seven-hundredths of one foot plus so many parts per million deviation dependent on the length of the survey line.

We all know that we are not the first to re-measure the land since the initial survey; in fact, we may be the tenth or fifteenth surveyor who has surveyed the property. This history can certainly complicate the problems associated with the survey, especially if some of the surveys were poorly done and are accompanied by a poorly written legal description.

The 1905 court case of Washington Rock Co. v. Young1 outlines a fundamental aspect of surveying. It specifically states that "on a survey of land to establish a lost boundary, the original corners established by the government surveyors, if they can be found, or if the place where they were originally established can be definitely determined, are conclusive, regardless of the correctness of their location." I believe this is also true in the colonial states dealing with original corners and re-surveys in subdivisions when finding original corners.

Yet, as surveyors and businesspeople, we sometimes seem to forget this basic principle of surveying. I am sure the sale of survey stakes and corner caps has increased greatly in recent years because of all the multiple corners that currently exist throughout the country.

Old vs. New Technology

When I was a young rodman in 1958, I worked on a large subdivision, about a half mile long on each side (160 acres). We surveyed the boundary in the summer and started to lay out lots from the east to the west. As summer turned to fall and fall to winter, we finally arrived at the western edge of the subdivision in the dead of winter. The party chief, knowing little about temperature correction on a steel tape, discovered about 6 to 8 tenths of a foot of extra land. Not wanting to leave a strip of land between the dedicated road on the west and the land to the west of the subdivision, we put a prorated distance in each lot.

If you were surveying a lot in this subdivision today, would you put in a new pin at recorded distance or accept the existing pin? How would you know what to do? Back in 1958, we used what we called a "pinched pipe," which was cut to length by a metal shear that left the end pinched shut. If you noticed that all of the pins found around your lot have these pinched pipes, and the other lots in the subdivision show the same overage of distance, you should be thinking, "By golly, they just may be the original corners!"

As another example, I will describe what I discovered about six years ago on a road right of way alignment for a GIS. Looking for corners on the right of way, I found one corner with a survey cap with the registration number of the original surveyor. Digging around the corner, I found another rebar with a cap. Scraping away the dirt, I saw that the second cap had the same registration number as the first cap; the two corners were only one-tenth apart! What was this surveyor thinking?

In another story, a Wisconsin surveyor recently told me about running a GPS traverse over a good total station survey he had previously run. While the two surveys generally agreed, the GPS points had small random differences compared to the original survey. (It was about a tenth of a foot at each point, but never in the same direction.) Now, just because a GPS position does not agree with an existing corner, do you automatically set another corner? With modern equipment, it is easy to simply reproduce the legal description in the field and set new corners. Some surveyors believe this is the correct approach. I, however, do not.

Avoiding the Clash

So how do these anecdotes about the clash between old and modern technologies fit into our business strategy? As surveyors, we need to find every reason we can to fit the evidence on the ground to our survey. This doesn't mean we need to accept every iron pipe or rod we trip over. What it does mean, however, is that we must carefully consider all the corner evidence. I think many surveyors tie a few corners and drape the legal on top of them, and then set all new corners without checking for the existence of original corners. As a businessperson, how is my company affected each time I set a new corner next to an existing corner? By setting a new corner, I am starting a conflict that just may end up in court.

I have worked with some of my friends on ALTA/ACSM surveys, and many of their jobs had an existing survey. On these surveys, my friends would always try to fit the corners on the ground. When there were differences, they would change the legal description to fit the corrected distances. Sometimes they would be asked to sign a statement to the effect that the new legal description was in fact the same piece of property as described in the original description. This makes sense because the next resurvey will fit both the ground monuments and the legal description perfectly without conflict. If we can find the will to stop setting additional corners, over time we can work the differences out of the legal descriptions.

I have a couple of practical suggestions to aid us in this resolve. To start, I think that professional surveyors need to spend more time in the field. When I see corners placed directly in conflict with the existing evidence, I can't help but wonder what the surveyor was thinking. A likely explanation to these additional corners is that the professional surveyor sent a crew out to the job with a stakeout sheet and was not actually present to set the corner. Fewer additional corners are set when land surveyors do their own fieldwork (such as one-person companies) and, as a result, fewer lawsuits are issued.

I know that the state of Indiana requires a surveyor's report with every survey. If all states followed this lead, fewer double corners would be set. If surveyors were required to write reports for each survey, it would become evident that setting more corners is not the answer. Additionally, rewriting the survey description in the report would allow the surveyor to include calls for monuments missing in the original description.

It's in our best interest--for our businesses and our profession--to become more proactive in preventing multiple corners.

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