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Opinion: Unlicensed Practice and the Public Trust

March 3, 2009
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Substandard "surveys" hurt our profession. Is there anything we can do about it?

"I have a previous survey," the client indicated as he asked about my pricing. I told him my fee for the job and asked for a copy of the survey when he dropped off the building plans. Not only was the "survey" not created by a surveyor, it was created by an unlicensed technician at one of the local health departments.

Let me be clear: This wasn't a sketch. It was a full-blown boundary survey with bearings and distances, ties to property lines, and proposed building locations. Then the client handed me another map of the same property. This one was prepared by a licensed soil scientist and was even stamped and sealed. I had witnessed two cases of unlicensed practice on one job, and it was not even 8:30 a.m.

In response to this situation and other similar events, I brought the matter up for discussion at our local surveyors’ meeting. The responses from other licensed surveyors did not surprise me. Some surveyors questioned whether preparing these plans could be considered surveying. Others thought that anybody could prepare these plats. Still others thought that several other licensed professionals could legally create these surveys.

I have had this same discussion with surveyors in many different areas of the country. Surveyors often do not know the laws of their state any better than the general public. Sometimes we are so misguided in our lack of knowledge that we voice our mistaken beliefs as law.

In North Carolina, boundary surveys are defined as, "Surveys made to establish or to retrace a boundary line on the ground, or to obtain data for constructing a map or plat showing a boundary line. For the purpose of this Rule the term refers to all surveys, including ‘loan’ or ‘physical’ surveys, which involve the determination or depiction of property lines. [Emphasis added.]" (NCAC, Title 21, Chapter 56, Section 1603.) To me, it doesn't get any clearer than that, folks. The maps from my client depicted the property lines and how physical objects are related to them.

Let's review the situation for a second and see how allowing unlicensed persons to create these plats will hurt the public and give surveyors a black eye.

A person wants to build a new home on his property, which was subdivided in 1973. He goes down to the local building (or health) department, and they create a plat for him showing the perimeter with bearings and distances and ties from the proposed buildings, well, etc., to the property line. Or perhaps a licensed professional (landscape architect, engineer, soil scientist, etc.) looks up the subdivision plat and sketches the boundary onto a plat for the client. Both situations are equally fraught with danger. The landowner expects that all this information is correct and that he can place his house as shown on the plat. But how can he? This map is a fraud. The boundary has not been retraced or even remarked in over 25 years.

There is no way for the homeowner to follow the measurements on the plat as they are fictitious. Has anyone looked to see if any easements exist on the property? What about unwritten rights? How can you measure a setback from a point that is not marked on the ground? A surveyor has not visited the site since at least 1973. Maybe the GIS technician showed him his property corners?

It's the job of every surveying professional to protect the public first. Yet, in the simplest of situations, we have failed to be the guardians we have promised to be. We have failed because we ourselves are often uneducated about the laws of our profession.

Turning a blind eye to unlicensed practice not only takes money out of your pocket-it damages the image of the profession as a whole. Non-professionals rarely care what their crews look like in the field, nor do they worry about the image of the profession. Their sole purpose is to make money. While there is certainly nothing wrong with making a buck, professionals are held to a higher standard.

The general public sees anyone who holds a rod or looks through a level as a surveyor, regardless of their professional status. I see contractors’ claims that "the surveyor" made a mistake or set a stake wrong, only to find out that the "surveyor" was not licensed and did not work for a survey firm at all. In short, we are getting a bad reputation because of unlicensed, poorly trained individuals who can barely run a data collector. These are not surveyors, and they are certainly not professionals.

How do we resolve this issue? The first step is to aggressively support the existing rules and laws that pertain to surveying in each state. If you are aware of possible unlicensed practice, turn that individual in to the proper authorities. Most states require licensed professionals to report violations of the licensing acts to the respective professional board. Even if your state does not require this, professional ethics dictate that you take action. Many surveyors believe that their individual state boards won't or can't do anything about unlicensed practice. However, this is often a self-fulfilling prophecy-the board certainly cannot and will not act if you do nothing.

The next step is to support and suggest laws that strengthen the profession. For instance, we do not currently have a mandatory filing law in North Carolina, but I fully support one. We also lack a law requiring pins to be capped, and I support that practice, as well. Unlicensed and substandard practitioners will find it more difficult to operate in an environment where maps have to be filed and corners must have license numbers on them. I also support a law requiring all surveys be tied to NAD 83 (NSRS). Right now, the law in North Carolina only requires surveys within 2,000 feet of a monument to be tied into the grid. With the implementation of a statewide CORS and the NC VRS network, the rule should be expanded to all surveys.

With today’s technology, implementing these requirements is simple, and the benefits to the public are immense. Part of being a professional requires a stewardship of the profession, and we must all do our part. Let's all work together to regain the public trust.


What do you think? Please post your comments below.


Note: The ideas and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of POB. Neither the author nor POB intend this article to be a source of legal advice.


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If you have a viewpoint on a topic of interest that you would like to see posted in Opinion, please e-mail the editor at pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.

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